At Memphis Zoo, Scientists Ponder Panda Chow

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
April 30, 2003

View a photo gallery of the pandas' journey from China to the Memphis Zoo. Go >>

In this third of five articles for Panda Week (details in side bar), National Geographic News focuses on the science behind the two newest guest pandas in the United States, Le Le and Ya Ya, on a ten-year exchange program from China to Memphis Zoo, Tennessee. Researchers from five universities will be studying the new pandas to learn more about the species' nutritional ecology and foraging strategy.

Memphis Zoo visitors are booking tickets and lining up this week to grab a peek at Le Le and Ya Ya, the newest residents of the zoo's new U.S. $16 million-dollar exhibit.

However, the bears are not solely a visitor attraction. Researchers from five universities are embarking on complementary research projects to gather information about the nutritional ecology and foraging strategy of the species.

The zoo has paid U.S. $10 million to the Chinese authorities for a 10-year loan. Lending pandas to other nations is not primarily a money-making venture, says Robert Sikes, University of Arkansas at Little Rock ecologist studying the pair. "Research is a fundamental aspect of any loan," and is designed to facilitate management and conservation of this highly endangered species, he said.

Essential Study

New projects linked with the Memphis Zoo and field study areas in China's Qinling Mountains are focusing primarily on bamboo—the panda's low energy, yet dependable, food source. Collaborating scientists are studying which bamboo Le Le and Ya Ya prefer, what times of year they eat them, how best to serve up that bamboo in captivity, how much energy the pair get from the bamboo, and how panda foraging behavior can affect the growth of wild bamboo.

"This is a very promising area of inquiry," said Donald G. Lindberg, head of the office of panda conservation at San Diego Zoo in California. "Bamboo comes in many varieties, and pandas consume some more than others. They also shift seasonally in the parts of plants consumed." Bamboo is critically important for pandas, and knowing the amount of energy available from it in panda habitats, especially fragmented ones, could prove to be crucial to survival of the species, he said.

Lindberg estimates that 80 research projects have been, or are being conducted on the four panda pairs at U.S. zoos. (The San Diego Zoo, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. and Zoo Atlanta, in Georgia, also have pandas.) A total of nine panda pairs are on exhibit outside of China.

"Pandas are notoriously difficult to study in the wild… . They live in steep, rugged mountains amongst thick patches of bamboo [and] are shy and secretive," said David M. Powell, a panda researcher at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Studying pandas in captivity is therefore essential, he said.

Picky Eater

Sikes' research team will use a zoo lab to document the animal's picky eating habits and the energy it gets from its food. Storing cut bamboo, even for short periods can affect palatability. "In nature, if the panda is hungry, it just bends a stalk over and eats it," he said. Zoo bamboo must be harvested and stored first. The team will also test which bamboo species the panda's most prefer, which bits of bamboo they like to eat (the leaves or the core of the stalk for example), and the relative amount of energy they get from each of the species.

Continued on Next Page >>


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