Livin’ the Panda Life

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

Chubby, adorable, and playful.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is she talking about kids? Isn’t this about animals?” After visiting the pandas at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Center with Ms. Suzanne Hall (a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research), I came to the realization that giant pandas are like toddlers. There are the obvious differences like pandas are wild animals and covered in fur, but many of the mannerisms and attitudes of pandas are very similar to that of a three- or four-year-old human.

When you see the pandas at the Zoo, you probably watch them for five or ten minutes, taking in their utter cuteness, watching them eat their bamboo or sleep in trees. What you may not realize is that those actions make up 90 percent of a panda’s activity every day. Ms. Hall, who studies the behavior of several species of bears, set up a 20-minute period in which my fellow interns and I would record, every minute, the actions of the panda. We had to record all of Bai Yun’s (the matriarch) actions per minute using codes like FDB (feeding on bamboo) or CL (climb). Exactly at the end of each minute, we recorded the specific action she was doing right then, called a point sample. Through this process, it is very easy to determine the importance of each activity in the daily life of a panda, which allows researchers to learn more about their actions in the wild. Also, as researchers studying behavior, Ms. Hall had us note the substrate Bai Yun was on in each minute, such as dirt/grass or a live tree/bush. Over these 20 minutes, I recorded only one action carried out by Bai Yun: feeding on bamboo. Even when the time was up, she probably wasn’t finished eating.

Pandas spend lots of time during the day eating because the bamboo they eat is low in calories. This means that they must eat a larger quantity of bamboo to get the nutrients they need. The rest of a panda’s day is mostly spent sleeping to help digest the bamboo meal. This may seem lazy, but it is what pandas have to do to get the full nutritional value of their food. Giant pandas have a hard time breaking down all the components of the bamboo that they eat. Most mammals that eat plants have bacteria living in their stomach that helps in the decomposition of plant matter. However, pandas are technically carnivores that have adapted to eating bamboo don’t have all of the bacteria in their stomach that true herbivores have. This means that they don’t receive as much energy from their food as most animals get from eating their food.

Even though giant pandas seem to mozy around a lot of the day, they can be playful as well. While monitoring Bai Yun’s behaviors, I got in some glances of the young cub Xiao Liwu playing around in the tree high above his mother’s head. The pandas enjoy playing in the trees or using enrichment items like cardboard boxes or scents placed in their exhibit. And like any youngster, Xiao Liwu also loves to play around with his mother from time to time.

Through Ms. Hall’s behavior research experience, I discovered how alike toddlers and giant pandas are. By observing Bai Yun preparing and eating her bamboo, I learned the importance of eating for the giant panda and why they must eat so much. Also, the panda’s diet affects their activities throughout the day, like playing or sleeping. Although you may not originally guess the similarities of little toddlers to the giant panda, by watching panda behavior you can discover the similarities. Just like toddlers, pandas spend their days eating, sleeping, and playing. What a life!

Leslie, Real World Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2013