Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



75,000 Pounds of Bamboo

by Brittany Grayson

Giant Panda
One of our pandas munches on some tasty bamboo.(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Every animal at the Zoo gets the same attention from the nutrition department; a panda is no different from a salamander. However, some animals are a disproportionate—one might even say giant—amount of work. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), both in the wild and at the Zoo, eat bamboo to the exclusion of almost everything else. However, bamboo is a grass, and it’s not particularly high in nutrients. So the giant pandas need to eat a giant amount of bamboo to keep healthy. The commissary feeds the three pandas a total of 200 pounds of bamboo each day.

What’s even more impressive is that the Zoo harvests all its own bamboo. Some is grown right on the park grounds. But more of it comes from the Zoo’s Front Royal campus and the surrounding area. Harvesting and transporting the bamboo takes the cooperation of the nutrition and the horticulture departments, and is one of the most physically demanding tasks at the Zoo—especially since the Zoo harvests about 75,000 pounds of bamboo every year.

All of that bamboo doesn’t go to the pandas, though the lion’s share does. Around the Zoo, the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and the red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) both get bamboo as part of their diets. The orangutans (Pongo spp.) and the gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) also get a portion of the bamboo, but they don’t eat it. They use it mainly for nesting and for enrichment. Mike Maslanka explains, “Bamboo is high in silica, so eating it is like chewing on sand. It’s really gritty. For animals that have similar taste and texture sensations as we do, it probably isn’t pleasant to eat.”

— BRITTANY GRAYSON is a web content editor and science writer for Friends of the National Zoo.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 38(6) 2009. Copyright 2009 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.