The giant panda likes living alone and roaming to pick up bamboo stems, shoots or leaves for food either during the day or at night. Pandas are active for 14 hours a day and sleep in two to four hour stints. They may forage at any time of the day but there are peaks of activity around dawn and in the late afternoon.
Compared to carnivores of similar size, the range of the Giant panda is small. The range of black bears can be up to 30 square kilometers. Pandas move about in a small area all the year round and their range of activities is very small, mostly eating and drinking and looking for food and drink. The range of activities of the male pandas is within about 6 to 7 square kilometers per year. They move around in about half their territory per month. The range of activities of females is smaller — about 4 to 5 square kilometers and their activities are focused in one tenth of their total territory per month.[Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
Having survived the the Quaternary glacier period, giant pandas are not adverse to cold, rain and wet. Even when the temperature is as low as — 4 to -14 degrees Celsius, they roam around in the thick bamboo loaded with heavy snow. Unlike black bears and many other animals, they don't hibernate in the winter; they select and eat bamboos through the cold months. The moist forests where the pandas live have humidity as high as 80 percent. For this reason that Li Shizhen — the famous Ming Dynasty pharmacist — slept in beddings made of panda fur as a means of preventing moisture and coldness.
Pandas don’t hibernate in the winter like many other bears that live in areas with cold winters in part because they need to keep eating to keep themselves going and can not store up fat like other bears. Instead of hibernating they descend to lower elevations where it isn’t so cold and they can continue to feed. In nasty snowstorms they may take refuge in the hollow of a tree or a rock crevice.
Panda Daily Routine
Panda spends 98 percent of their time eating or sleeping. The other two percent, according to a Chinese book, is spent “wondering and enjoying.” Their daily routine consists of laying around and eating, falling asleep, and waking up and eating some more and defecating up to 50 times a day. When they get up to move on they can leave behind as much as 20 pounds of dropping. They basically spend their whole lives doing this except when they mate and give birth and care for their young.
Because the energy in the bamboos is very low, in order to reduce the energy consumed as much as possible, the giant pandas mainly spend their time in looking for food and resting. After eating and drinking, they will sleep after climbing to the high branches where it is safe and cool. Sometimes, the pandas will be too sleepy to climb into the trees so they will sleep on the grass, in the snow field, or on the rocks. They can go on to look for food after having a nap. [Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
The everyday time schedule of a giant panda could be:
12:00midnigh-02:00am Sleep 2:00-7:40am Breakfast 7:40-10:30am Morning Sleep
10:30-11:00am Playing 11:00-12:00 Lunch 12:00-2:30pm Noon Break
2:30-9:00pm Supper 9:00pm-12:00midnight Evening Break So everyday pandas spend 54.86 percent of time in looking for food, 43.06 percent of time for rest, but only 2.08 percent of time for play.
Giant pandas fear few predators other than man. The thick bamboo thickets where they live offer good protection. Their short, squat shape allows them to slip more easily through the undergrowth than say a leopard. Pandas generally move in a very restrained way, presumably to conserve energy and spend a lot of time just lying around. When threatened they trot rather than gallop, like other bears, and generally make a beeline for the nearest tree to climb.
The giant panda usually roams its thick forest habitat alone , and has been called "the recluse in the bamboo forest." However, according to the Science Museum of China: “in warm spring when flowers bloom, the pandas come out of their kingdoms and chase after the love. They may pursue each other, and then fall in love and get "married". Although giant pandas look fat, they can exert themselves if necessary. Some say this is an instinct inherited from their carnivore ancestors. This capability helps in hunting and running from dangers. Young giant pandas particularly enjoy climbing trees.[Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
Giant pandas can swim. They are good climbers and very agile in trees. Their skill as tree-climbers allows them to escape from their natural enemies and gives them a perch for sunbathing, playing, courting and mating. They often look more awkward on land than they do in trees. Pandas take to trees to scout an area, escape intruders or even take a nap. They skillfully climb upwards by digging their claws into the trunk and pulling themselves up and descend trees, sliding downward in fits and starts, rump first. Pandas sometimes mark trees with their claws. Adults don’t take to trees that often but cubs often spend hours each day in in the safety of trees while their mother forages for food.
Pandas are curious. Scientists believe this is because they are able to eat so many different things and like to check things out to see if they are edible. Pandas in the wild are often dirty. They often dig up pieces of sod and rub it on their bodies and roll in wet earth until they are black. They seem to do this to pick up scents. Pandas also bathe and often take to water in the summer to cool off.
Individual pandas often display very individualist behavior. Some are shy and prefer to be with themselves. Some are more social, active and rambunctious. Some are picky eaters. Others tear through their food. Young pandas often display behavior that is similar to that of their mothers. Asked about their personalities, one scientist at Wolong told Atlantic Monthly: “Just like human beings! Some are lonely. Some are interested only in food, and once they get it they relax.”
Pandas spend a lot of time lying on their back or side, scratching themselves with all four limbs. They use their forefeet to rub their faces and necks and scratch places their paws won’t reach by rubbing themselves on the ground or against a tree or some other object. Pandas mark their territories with anal gland scents, urine and claw scratchings. They often occupy overlapping territories but avoid trouble with other pandas by using different areas at different times.
Because it is difficult to observe pandas in the wild most of what is known them comes from observing them in captivity or zoos.
Panda Social Behavior
Pandas are generally solitary animals, except for mothers and young. Sometimes they live in a loosely affiliated group of 12 animals, and there might be three such groups in a river valley. A panda group usually consists of breeding males and females, their cubs, and immature males. Cubs often move to another group (perhaps a natural adaption to prevent in breeding).
When two panda meet they either avoid one another or fight. In either case they make a lot of noise’squeals, bleats yips, chirps, moans and barks — but they don’t roar like other bears. Eleven different pandas vocalizations have been identified.
Unlike black bears, grizzlies and other bears that often cover a lot of ground in their search for food, pandas stay close to home, where their food sources are. Their ranges are small, varying from 1.6 to 2.6 square miles. They share all parts of their range with other pandas, except for females who maintain a 100-acre area where other females aren't welcome.
Because of their percieved solitary nature, captive pandas in zoos were often kept apart form one other. This turned out to be a mistake. Now zoo pandas are allowed to hang out with each other and scientists have observed they interact with each other about half of their waking hours, playing with one another and often eating and sleeping near one another. Captive adolescent pandas are quite active and social.
Pandas are most likely to exhibit friendly behavior and engage in social play in the spring as they warm up for the mating season. Activities include somersaulting, non-sexual mounting, wrestling, paw-swatting and playfully biting each other’s ears. Humans find this kind of playful behavior to be very endearing.
Pandas give off few visual cues. Their expressions don’t change, their tails don’t wag and their ears don’t perk up. Most communication is done through scents and to a lesser extent sound. Pandas use scent to define their territories and avoid conflict by letting others know where they are there. Pandas spread their scents by squatting and rubbing their rump and tail or back and rump on vertical objects, cricking their leg and pissing like a dog and even standing on their head, facing a vertical surface and rubbing their body against it.
Cornered pandas or mother pandas with children can be quite ferocious. When threatened mother pandas roar, huff and snort. Most aggressive behavior though is by males competing over females in the breeding season. Occasionally males and females in zoos fight during breeding time but this is thought to occur because the male doesn’t have any males to fight with.
Describing a charge by a panda mother, George Schaller wrote in “The Last Panda”, "Suddenly we see bamboo sway 30 feet ahead, and Zhen [the panda] turns to leave, abruptly changes here mind, and giving two loud roars and several snorts, trots towards us...I charge through the bamboo to a nearby tree, a small one six inches in diameter, and scramble up...After she passes beneath my feet she halts, huffing and snorting, and listens, for one long minute then turns towards her den tree."
A fight between males begins with a stare down by the two rivals. It is not unusual for one male to back down at this stage. If the two decide to take their fight to the next level they circle each other and try to gain an advantageous position, growling, moaning and baring their teeth, and making paw sways. One may rear up in gesture that often represents a final gesture to avoid an all out fight. If neither backs down a real fight with biting and lunging begins
Young males sometimes are badly injured in fights with older males for "breeding rights." Females, Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi wrote, "can be more aggressive with one another. Each has a core area where neighboring females trespass at their peril. We once saw [a panda] chase an intruder out of her area, bloodying the interloper's face."
Panda Eating and Drinking Habits
Giant pandas are carnivores, but 99 percent of their food comes from bamboos. An even though pandas eat bamboo about 99 percent of the time but will eat meat, human food or other plants if given the chance. Pandas have been observed eating vines, horsetails, irises, crocuses, beardless wheat, corns, equisetums, green thatch grass, multi-hole gill fungus, wild angelicas, notoperygium roots and the barks of the young firs. and certain kids of tufted grass.
Pandas eat about 13 kilograms of bamboo a day. They have been seen picking up dead animals and eating them and catching small animals as food. They eat eggs and grubs when available. Local people claim to have seen them climb trees to snatch honey from a beehive. Evidence that the ancestors of pandas were carnivorous can be found in its last upper premolar and first lower molar which are specially adapted for shearing, and are known as carnassials. They are found only in carnivores.
Pandas eat mostly at dawn and dusk and sleep in dense bamboo thickets. They are often seen eating in a relaxed sitting posture, with their hind legs stretched in front of them. Adult pandas produce about 20 kilograms of feces a day. "They are like a machine that is churning out organic fertilizer," said a Chinese man who grows tea using the feces. "They keep eating and they keep producing feces." "Also, they absorb less than 30 percent of the nutrition from the food, and that means more than 70 percent of the nutrients are passed out in their feces. Just like green tea, bamboo contains an element that can prevent cancer ad enhance green’s anti-cancer effects, if it is used as fertilizer for tea.”
Pandas often live beside clean rivers or springs, and they like drinking water very much. Occasionally, the panda has to climb a long way to the valley for water. Sometimes, because the panda is very thirsty, it will try hard to find a water source, and then indulge in water so much that it will finally behave like a drunken man, by lying by the stream. So people have a saying that "Giant Panda Drunk of Water" [Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
Pandas in captivity eat sugar-cane leaves, bread, milk, apples, eggs, rice gruel, carrots, high-fiber biscuits, and nutritional supplements. Many are fed cream-colored biscuits made of bamboo and enriched with vitamins. Before these were invented many captive pandas in China subsisted off steamed bread. The cost of supplying pandas with the kinds of bamboo they like can be prohibitively expensive.
Pandas and Bamboo
Bamboo, the main panda food source, ironically is one of the most indigestible members of the plant family. It is basically giant grass with blades that are like pieces of wood. Mature stems are so permeated with silicon that they will dull the sharpest and strongest knife. As a result few animals eat bamboo. Any species that does it is going to have a plentiful food supply (bamboo is found in a lot of places), which offers an evolutionary explanation why pandas eat it. Pandas have a very strong bite force — higher than tigers or lions — presumably because they need a lot of force to bite through pieces of bamboo.
Pandas feed on different parts of 30 or more bamboo species, feeding on new shoots in the spring, leaves in the summer and stems in the winter. They seem to be most fond of arrow bamboo, which grows in bamboo forest at an altitude between 2,500 and 4,000 meters. In the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi province, pandas primarily eat two species of bamboo — one that thrives in the higher elevations and another that is found primarily at low elevations. They often eat leaves, which contain the highest levels of digestible protein. In zoos, pandas will reject any leaves and stems that have begun to dry out.
Pandas seem to negotiate their way through the forest by eating their way through the dense bamboo. They typically eat in a sitting position, nap when satiated, move on a little further and repeat the process. On average a panda eats about half of its body weight each day — between 10 and 19 kilograms (22 to 40 pounds) of leaves and stems, and up to 38 kilograms (85 pounds) of shoots (which are 90 percent water). A slow metabolism allows them to get the most out of their nutrient-poor diet.
When eating, pandas pick the tenderest shoots and, using their front and back paws together, strip off the leaves, and peel off the tough outer sheaths. The peeled stems are fed into the mouth, and chewed a section at a time, with an average of six or seven chews per mouthful, leaving behind a pile of peelings in the panda’s lap. Schaller once counted 3,481 chewed off stems. To take in this much food pandas have to essentially eat all the time. Pandas may climb as high as 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) to feed on higher slopes in the summer season.
To handle such a large amount of tough food, pandas have large, muscular jaws equipped with enormous large, flat molars for grinding the bamboo. They have claws that are ideal for hooking stems and opposable “thumbs” that allow the pandas to hold te bamboo while they eat it. Only pandas, monkeys and apes can bend a thumb or thumb-like appendage to grasp. A panda’s thumb is actually a projection of its wrist bone that is mobile and fully muscled. It sits at the base of the front paw and can press against the paw, allowing the panda to hold bamboo like a piece of celery and shove into their mouths. When they eat pandas often adopt a position that is very similar to a sitting human
Nutritional Value of Bamboo That Pandas Eat
Giant pandas eat bamboos that grow in the high mountains and the deep valleys of China. With the changes of the seasons, the kinds of the bamboos and the diet of the giant pandas are different. They like bamboo shoots best. From spring to summer, they like to live on the bamboo shoots of the Qiong bamboo (Q.tunidinoda Hsueh et Yi), some bamboos of the madake bamboo category, the wood bamboos in Bashan, the walking stick bamboos, the Chaohua arrow bamboos (Fargesia scabrida Yi), the Huaxi arrow bamboos and the big arrow bamboos. The bamboo shoots are the new trunks of the bamboos that have no branches or leaves and grow from the underground bamboo roots. The bamboo is very small and tender, and the water content is abundant. [Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
The nutritional components include: the raw fat is 1.27 percent, the raw fiber is 33.62 percent, the crude protein is 10.32 percent, and the general quantity of sugar is 26.15 percent. The bamboo shoots are small and tender and they are succulent which taste good and therefore are easy to be digested and absorbed and they are dainty dishes for giant pandas. From spring to autumn every year, in order to eat the different kinds of bamboos and bamboo shoots of different heights above sea level, the giant pandas will look for food from the middle mountains to the high mountains, which is called "the chasing of the bamboo shoots".
“As for a bamboo as a whole, the content of the nutrition components increases gradually from the bottom of the trunk to the top. Taking the cold arrow bamboos (Bashania faberi Yi) for example, the raw fat of the bamboo pole is 0.59 percent, and that of the bamboo branches is 3.37 percent; the crude protein of the bamboo pole is 4.20 percent, and that of the bamboo leaves is 19.44 percent; the raw fiber of the bamboo pole is 46.66 percent, and that of the bamboo leaves is 24.27 percent. So, although giant pandas love bamboo shoots, but it is reasonable for them to live on bamboo leaves and the upper bamboo poles of the young first-year bamboos.
Why Do Pandas Eat Bamboo Almost Exclusively?
Why do pandas eat bamboo? According to the Science Museum of China: “From an ecological perspective, the specialized eating habit of the giant pandas shows that their ecological niche is very narrow, and they avoid competition by compressing the niche (compressing the width of their range food). The giant pandas just live on the food that is distributed most extensively in the North Temperate Zone, which is not nutritious but abundant and steady in reserve to live on till now, so that people think that pandas are the "winners" who can stand the long test in the evolution process, but pandas have lost the sense of competition and curiosity, so they are observing the convention and holding themselves together in the fate that has a bleak prospect. In the specialization, the giant pandas live on the bamboos that are low in nutrition and energy. In order to live, they try their best to reduce their range of activities, to exercise less and to rest more in order to save the energy.[Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
Henry Nicholls wrote in The Telegraph: “It seems bizarre that a creature whose ancestors were carnivores would turn towards an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, and in particular to a nutritional source as poor as bamboo. It has to spend more than half of every day sitting and eating just to extract enough calories. When you think about it objectively, though, the prolific growth rate of these hardy plants, their year-round availability and widespread distribution (until humans appeared on the scene) actually made bamboo a pretty attractive snack. And the panda goes about extracting what little nutrition there is in great style: a sixth digit fashioned from its wrist bone allows it to grasp at stems and strip off leaves; its hefty skull and strong teeth provide the means to crush through the tough bark to the goodness within; and its digestion is aided by an intimate symbiosis with some very powerful gut microbes. So effective are they that Japanese scientists were able to use bacteria extracted from panda feces to achieve “the complete digestion of kitchen refuse” — a finding for which they rightly won the biology category in the 2009 Ig Nobel awards for improbable research. [Source: Henry Nicholls, The Telegraph, September 28, 2010]
“Interestingly, when geneticists sequenced the panda’s entire genome in 2009, they found a messed-up gene that means they probably can’t taste flesh, which may explain why they don’t seek it out that often. But when the opportunity presents itself, pandas will happily tuck in. Researchers carrying out the first proper fieldwork in the 1980s found droppings that contained hair from a golden monkey and the hair, bones and hooves of a musk deer. The panda genome still contains all the enzymes needed for digesting meat, and these rare lapses into carnivory might be crucial in providing important trace nutrients that are absent from bamboo. They have also helped researchers, who have baited traps with goat heads and pig bones to lure and then collar their quarry.”
Meat -and Sweet-Eating Pandas
Wildlife is scarce in the bamboo forest, and pandas are generally too slow to catch anything even if there were. There have been reports of pandas eating fish, pikas and rodents and entering logging camps to steal meat. Some Chinese say that pandas catch boom rats by stomping on the ground above their burrows and catching the rats in their mouth when they escape from their burrows.
In 2011 The Telegraph reported: The moment a wild panda turns carnivore has been filmed in Pingwu County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, for the first time. Captured on an infrared camera in the Laohegou forest area, the panda appears to find a dead animal in a gulley and gnaws on its bones for two hours. It is the first time a panda eating meat has been clearly seen, according to local workers in the forest area. Chen Youping, deputy director of Forestry Department of Pingwu County, told The Telegraph: "The reason why pandas eat meat is because it used to eat meat millions of years ago."Now they mainly eat bamboos, but we occasionally see bones of dead animals in pandas' excrement during our years of field work." [Source: The Telegraph website]
Scientists studying giant pandas said that while they almost exclusively eat bamboo, which contains only tiny amounts of sugars, they showed a strong preference for natural sweeteners in an experiment. Reuters reported: “The researchers also examined panda DNA and found a match to the same "sweet receptor" gene that humans possess that underpins their ability to taste sugars. Sweeter foods like fruit may have been part of the natural diet of pandas before human activities helped drive the animals into their current mountainous habitat where those foods are scarce, the researchers said."Giant pandas love sweets," said behavioral geneticist author Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who led the study published in the journal PLOS "We are a bit surprised. However, given the anecdotal evidence that they like apples, sweet potato and so on in captivity, we are not completely surprised," added Monell molecular biologist Peihua Jiang, another of the researchers. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, March 27, 2014]
“Their experiments involved eight giant pandas at the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center in China. The youngest was 3 years old and the oldest was 22.The bears were given two bowls of liquid and permitted to drink for five minutes. One was filled with plain water. The other contained water mixed with one of six natural sugars: fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose.The pandas liked all the sugar solutions better than plain water, especially fructose and sucrose. "They often emptied the bowl containing sugary solution," Jiang said. The researchers then did the same tests with five artificial sweeteners, but the pandas were far less interested in those. “"Giant pandas' ancient diet may have included more foods than just bamboo — perhaps fruits, hence the sweet tooth. It may be that bamboo is an every-day food for giant pandas, but when sweeter foods are available they go for them," Reed said.
Giant Pandas Like Roll Around in Poop to Feel Warm?
In some places pandas roll around in horse manure. Naturally, the first question one asks is why? After quite a bit of research, scientists determined it was stay war in cold weather. Jonathan Lambert wrote in Science News: It was a strange sight: In the winter of 2007, scientists in China spotted a wild giant panda romping about in horse manure, diligently smearing itself with excrement until its fur became a poo-muddled mess. It wasn’t the last time the researchers would spot this strange behavior. But figuring out why pandas do this would take the team 12 years and a scientific trek through the fields of animal behavior, chemical ecology and neurophysiology. But now, researchers think they have an answer. [Source: Jonathan Lambert, Science News, December 7, 2020]
Pandas may roll in poop, oddly enough, to feel warm. Researchers identified a chemical present in horse droppings that confers cold resistance to laboratory mice and could inhibit a cold-sensing protein present in giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), they report December 7, 2020 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.“I’m a panda expert, and this is one of the strangest panda papers I’ve ever read,” says Bill McShea, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but these researchers deserve a lot of credit.”
Students of Fuwen Wei, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, first glimpsed the bizarre behavior deep in the Qinling mountains of central China. The region is crisscrossed by ancient trade routes well-trod by horses, so the researchers say horse manure may have been common. To understand what those benefits might be, the researchers first had to catch more manure maneuvers. They set up a series of motion-sensitive cameras along roads in the Foping National Nature Reserve. The cameras captured 38 panda-poo interactions from July 2016 to June 2017, suggesting that the initial observation wasn’t just a freak incident. The camera setup also recorded the time and air temperature for each behavior, revealing a clear pattern: Giant pandas rolled in poop only in colder weather. The majority of observations were captured when temperatures were between –5° Celsius and 5° C.
Pandas were picky about poo, too. It had to be fresh; manure more than a few days old was largely ignored. Chemical analysis revealed that two volatile compounds, often found in plants, were abundant in fresh poop but scarce in older samples: beta-caryophyllene (BCP) and beta-caryophyllene oxide (called BCPO). At the Beijing Zoo, the team presented six captive giant pandas with piles of hay suffused with the chemicals, or with other substances. The pandas spent significantly more time investigating hay covered in BCP/BCPO. One panda, named Ginny, spent six minutes covering herself with the treated hay.
Armed with these clues, the researchers next tested whether the chemical somehow affects temperature sensation. Pandas aren’t exactly amenable to laboratory experiments, so the researchers applied BCP/BCPO to the tiny paws of lab mice and subjected the mice to a battery of cold tolerance tests. Compared with saline-treated mice that shivered in the cold, mice treated with BCP/BCPO seemed unfazed.
Image Sources: Panda images: WWF and CNTO; Red Panda images: ailarus
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2022