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January 6, 2016

New information on the feeding habits of pandas

A panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China eats a stalk of bamboo. A recent study gained new insight on the feeding habits of these elusive animals.

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Research by scientists from Michigan State University (MSU) in which five pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve were equipped with global positioning system collars found that the daily routine of pandas is quite different than expected.

Pandas were thought to be crepuscular; that is, they are active twice a day, at dawn and dusk. But the MSU study, led by Jindong Zhang, a research associate in MSUs Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, found that pandas may belong to a category all their own.

Tracking the pandas from 2010 to 2012, Zhang mapped how active they were during 24-hour periods and during different seasons. He found there were three activity "peaks" throughout the day: in the morning, afternoon and midnight.

"We cannot simply say the panda is a crepuscular creature. Giant pandas show complex activity patterns that are closely related to food quality and water availability," Zhang says. "They need to eat food more frequently, such as at midnight, since the nutrition quality of bamboo is low. The study of the activity patterns of pandas opens a door to discovering the unique adaptations of pandas to their environment."

Pandas eat only bamboo yet digest less than 20 percent of what they consume. It's this unusual diet that researchers believe may account for what apparently is an extra burst of activity.

Vanessa Hull, an MSU postdoctoral associate and a co-author of the study, believes pandas fall in a category all their own on the food chain. Hull says, "Many herbivores have a kind of crepuscular foraging strategy because they want to avoid predators and/or humans that are usually active during the day, so they eat as much as they can at dawn and dusk. But with pandas, they don't have any major predators, so they can afford to adjust their activity patterns to their own schedule and not worry about running into something that would eat them. It is just interesting to see that they take advantage of this."

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

To learn more, see the MSU news story Pandas set their own pace, tracking reveals. Or read about other panda research by Zhang Here. (Date image taken: January 2013; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Jan. 6, 2016)

Credit: Kurt Stepnitz, Michigan State University

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