The Giant Panda
The giant panda's newborn cub is only one nine-hundredth of its mother's weight. The giant panda spends almost all its time eating to sustain itself on nutritionally poor bamboo leaves and stems.
Without natural enemies, the panda is free to carry out its business of endless bamboo eating. It is endangered, however, by the twin threats of poaching and deforestation. Isolated in its cool, damp mountain strongholds, the giant panda has developed thick fur and a bulky build to help it conserve energy.
The panda lives in mountains of Sichuan in southwest China, a remote part of the Tibetan plateau containing more plant and animal species than any temperate region in the world. Bamboo, a hardy treelike grass, thrives in this forbidding habitat. The giant panda depends almost totally on bamboo for nourishment, so it is at home among these mountains. The steep, inaccessible terrain is also a defensive advantage for an animal that can hardly to stop eating.
A female signals her readiness to mate by secreting a musky scent along known panda paths and by calling from high in trees. Several males may respond and all of them may mate with the female. A pregnant female seeks a den in a cave, bamboo thicket or at the base of a tree, lining it with wood chips of branches.
The single newborn cub is tiny, blind and naked, but grows quickly. After about a month, the mother resumes normal feeding, cradling the cub in the crook of her arm. Although weaned at about six months, the cub stays with its mother through the next breeding season. It leaves her the following spring in search of a good feeding area in which to establish its own home range.
The panda cannot waste energy patrolling a territory because bamboo, its main food, is so poor in nutrients. However, bamboo is plentiful within the panda’s range, so there is little call for confrontations over food. Males and females encounter each other only in spring to mate. Males meeting are almost as rare; these involve establishing rank in the breeding, process and are usually settled peacefully.
Unlike other large, grass eating animals such as cattle or deer, the giant panda lacks the special stomach compartments that help digestion by breaking down cellulose. Instead the panda must eat and eat, defecating frequently to make room for more bamboo. Constant eating consumes almost all of the panda’s time. Even naps are limited to about four hours, after which time the gut needs more bamboo to continue its job of supplying nutrients to the body. Where food is plentiful, the panda settles into a routine of eight hours feeding followed by four hours sleep.
The panda’s population has declined greatly, even during the last 20 years, largely through the effects of hunting and loss of habitat. However, legislation has helped establish more than a dozen preserves where pandas are strictly protected.