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Melodious Munches: Pandas and Bamboo Shoots

This is the sound of a giant panda eating his favorite meal.

Sound on to hear Tian Tian crunches!

Every spring between late April and May, tender shoots of new bamboo sprout in the Washington, D.C. area. Asia Trail keepers feed as many shoots as possible to our giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and our red pandas, Asa and Jackie. This time of year, they all prefer the shoots over some of their favorite summer, fall and winter foods. Giant pandas receive apples, pears and sweet potatoes; red pandas also receive apples as well as grapes.

Red pandas Jackie (left) and Asa (right) snack on bamboo shoots in their indoor habitat.

Hearing the sound of the giant and red pandas chomping down on these tasty treats is music to the keepers’ ears! As our animal care team members Nicole MacCorkle and Mariel Lally noted in the last update, both species have a pseudo thumb— an elongated and enlarged wrist bone covered with a fleshy pad of skin—which enables them to easily grasp bamboo. Giant pandas have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo, while red pandas shear selected leaves off with their mouths.

Mei Xiang takes a bite of bamboo at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat.

Our colleagues in the Department of Nutrition Sciences cut bamboo for the pandas at more than 20 stands across the region—including one at our very own Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

One might not think pandas have picky palates when it comes to bamboo, but during winter and spring Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are partial to a species called yellow groove bamboo. It gets its name from the yellow indentation that runs down the hard stalk (a.k.a. the culm.)

Giant pandas Tian Tian (left) and Mei Xiang (right) eat their bamboo shoots at the back of their yards.

Spring is also the time of year when giant pandas consume the largest amount of bamboo. Keepers feed each bear more than 100 pounds of it every day!

We place bamboo in the pandas’ favorite snacking spots, such as beneath a shady tree or near certain rocks and logs they like to use as backrests. Currently, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian only eat the culm, shredding it to bite-sized bits. Once the summer heat sets in, they will switch to eating the leaves.

This story appears in the May 16 Giant Panda Bulletin.

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Don't miss Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on the Giant Panda Cam.