At Memphis Zoo, Scientists Ponder Panda Chow

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In preparation for Le Le and Ya Ya's arrival, Memphis Zoo workers have been cultivating seven species of bamboo in a nearby five-acre (two-hectare) agricultural center. At least three of these different species may be given to the pandas in any one day, but a total of more than 20 different bamboos will be tested for nutrition and palatability over the course of the project.

"Pandas are difficult to feed in captivity because they require large quantities of fresh bamboo and are very selective about which plants they eat," said Rebecca Snyder, panda research curator at Zoo Atlanta, Georgia. It will be helpful to know what qualities pandas look for and how best to maintain those qualities in storage, she said.

Though the University of Arkansas at Little Rock group will be the only team studying pandas on-site at the Memphis Zoo, other universities are also taking a major role in the research program.

Panda fecal samples will be collected at the zoo and mailed to Doug Tolleson's lab at Texas A&M University in College Station. Tolleson and his team will use sophisticated chemical techniques to rapidly quantify the quality of the diet. Meanwhile, chemists at Mississippi State University will examine the breakdown of fat, protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients in different types of bamboo.

A team led by ecologist Scott B. Franklin at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, is already in China's Qinling Mountains. They are examining the effect of panda foraging on bamboo. Large areas of bamboo forest are often connected stem-to-stem underground. As a result, damaging one plant can affect others. Every 50 years or so, these linked colonies may all die off at the same time, following a dramatic burst of flowering. Large areas have been lost before due to bamboo die-offs, said Franklin. Gathering additional data may help to pick suitable sites for reserves.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens in Beijing, and other Chinese bodies are also involved in several aspects of the Memphis Zoo program.

Energetic Puzzle

"When all is said and done [with these studies], we should have an outstanding picture of the nutrition of these animals," said Sikes. Maximizing the amount of energy that panda's get from their food may also make small, crucial differences during the difficult process of captive breeding.

The giant panda "is an energetic puzzle," said Sikes. Though they have evolved from a mostly meat-eating lineage of carnivores, they've become absolute herbivores, he said. Most plant-eaters have developed adaptations to handle difficult-to-digest plant cellulose. Panda's haven't, making bamboo a relatively low-energy food source. Consequentially, the have to spend up to 18 hours a day eating.

That doesn't leave much time, nor energy, to procreate, said Sikes.

Tonight on National Geographic Today: The most crucial conservation efforts for pandas take place inside and outside of China's cities and villages. In its schools, efforts to educate the Chinese are essential and begin at an early age. See what lessons kindergartners are learning about endangered species and the importance of conservation. And, out in the forests of China, there is another critical link in conservation efforts: large reforestation programs with the goal of improving the future for many of China's most endangered species.

Tomorrow: Planning a trip halfway around the world takes careful planning, especially when the travelers are two giant pandas! National Geographic Today takes you behind the scenes as Le Le and Ya Ya get ready to head from China to their new home at the Memphis Zoo. Get an inside look at what logistics, veterinary care, and potential complications must be tended to when undertaking such an incredible feat. And, talk about precious cargo! Join National geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim and her crew as they climb aboard a FedEx plane with two 150-pound (70-kilogram) giant pandas for an exclusive look at how these beautiful creatures traveled to their new home at the Memphis Zoo—one that bears a striking resemblance to their Chinese habitat. With the only television crew to travel with these giant creatures, National Geographic Today brings you exceptional coverage of this amazing journey.

Additional Resources on Pandas:

Creature Feature—Pandas (Fun Facts, Video, Audio, Map, Postcards): Go>>

Panda Chow (Online Game): Go>>

NG Book: The Little Panda (Windows on Literacy): Go>>

Animals & Nature Guide: Go>>

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