Bamboo Feeding Development

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With panda cubs, one of the most important milestones in their development is the onset of bamboo feeding. As mammals, they begin life with a complete dependence upon their mother’s milk for sustenance, but they have to transition to feeding themselves solid food by the time they wean at approximately 18 months.

In the zoo environment, we have seen our panda cubs mouthing mother’s non-bamboo items— biscuits, apples, yams—from about the time when they emerge from the den. At that time, consumption of these items is incidental, as most activity is focused on gnawing and investigating the food object. The panda cub does not have the teeth to begin eating solids in earnest at this stage, but the exploration of food items gives the cubs an early idea of what is palatable. Keepers recognize the appeal these new foods have to a young panda and use apple slices to lure a cub through the tunnel or to hold its attention during an exam.

Eventually, the cub begins to feed on these non-bamboo items. This has typically begun shortly after den emergence, at about 6 to 7 months of age. The young cub can gnaw on a biscuit for some time to soften it and then ingest the wetted crumbs. Before long, it can clean up a portion of its mother’s provisioned food—if it is feeling motivated. In general, under a year of age the cubs have very little desire to eat provisioned items because mother’s milk is still providing everything they need. Bai Yun is highly motivated, however, so if her cub doesn’t get to a biscuit quickly, there may not be one laying around to work with later.

Bamboo, too, is often mouthed as a play item while the cub is still in the den. Again, it isn’t consumed for nutrition at this stage. However, bamboo surrounds them from birth, and from the beginning of a cub’s time exploring its surroundings it will mouth, paw, and sniff at bamboo. At six to nine months, our cubs will investigate the scraps of culm that fall from Bai Yun’s mouth as she feeds. They will begin to sit near her and work on the bamboo leaves, tasting and chewing and, ultimately, spitting out crushed leaves. I recall watching Hua Mei go through this process daily, even climbing a tree to rest while chewing a few tasty leaves, eventually spitting out a wad of bamboo 20 minutes after she started to chew it. No doubt she ingested small quantities and plenty of “bamboo juice,” but she did not begin consuming it with any purpose until about 11 months of age.

The teeth needed to really chew those leaves begin to emerge close to the one-year mark, and so, too, does real bamboo feeding behavior occur. Each cub is a little different, and there is some variation in the onset of bamboo feeding, but you can expect to see Yun Zi start to tackle this milestone in the next few months. Of course, to be sure, you’ll have to stick around 20 minutes or so to ensure you don’t see him spit out the leaves he has been chewing…

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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