Creature Feature Title

F U N   F A C T S

High in dense bamboo forests in the misty, rainy mountains of southwestern China lives one of the world’s rarest mammals: the giant panda, also called the panda. Only about 1,000 of these black-and-white relatives of bears survive in the wild.

Pandas eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots and leaves. Occasionally they eat other vegetation, fish, or small animals, but bamboo accounts for 99 percent of their diets.

Pandas eat fast, they eat a lot, and they spend about 12 hours a day doing it. The reason: They digest only about a fifth of what they eat. Overall, bamboo is not very nutritious. The shoots and leaves are the most valuable parts of the plants, so that’s what a well-fed panda concentrates on eating. To stay healthy, they have to eat a lot—up to 15 percent of their body weight in 12 hours—so they eat fast.

Pandas’ molars are very broad and flat. The shape of these teeth helps the animals crush the bamboo shoots, leaves, and stems they eat. To get the bamboo to their mouths, they hold the stems with their front paws, which have enlarged wrist bones that act as thumbs for gripping.

There are many species of bamboo. Only a few of these grow at the high altitudes where pandas live today. A panda should have at least two bamboo species where it lives, or it will starve.

Giant pandas used to be able to move quite easily from one mountaintop to another in search of food. Now the valleys are mostly inhabited by people. Pandas are shy; they don’t venture into areas where people live. This restricts pandas to very limited areas. As people continue to farm, log, and develop land higher and higher up the mountain slopes, the pandas’ habitat continues to shrink.

And sometimes, when all the bamboo in their area dies off naturally, pandas starve because they’re unable to move to new areas where other bamboo species thrive.

Conservation organizations and Chinese government officials and scientists continue to work toward resolving the pandas’ isolation problems. Maintaining “bamboo corridors”—strips of undisturbed land through which pandas can comfortably travel from mountain to mountain—are one of the many ideas that may help save the giant panda.

Text by Catherine D. Hughes

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To learn more about pandas, read “Panda Baby Grows Up” in the November 2000 issue of WORLD magazine. Click here to receive WORLD each month, or call 800 437 5521 (U.S. and Canada only).

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