Red pandas rely on bamboo for almost all their dietary needs. Unfortunately, having such a specific requirement has contributed to their severely endangered status. As their habitats grow smaller and people harvest wild bamboo, red pandas have found themselves with less food and fewer places to find their dinners. In zoos these animals often receive more nutritionally balanced diets.
Bamboo makes up around 95 percent of the red pandas’ diet and serves as their only food during the winter, from December to April. They eat only the bamboo species highest in fiber and protein -- one or two types out of 40 or more that might grow in their territory. Their digestive systems don’t have microbes to help them absorb plant nutrients, so red pandas digest less than a quarter of the food they eat. As a result, they have to consume around 30 percent of their body weight every day, and they spend 10 to 13 hours foraging and eating daily. They prefer tender leaves and shoots.
Red pandas vary their diets a little during the spring, summer and fall. They eat bark, grass, lichens, roots, flowers and leaves of plants other than bamboo. They might also dine on acorns, berries, fruit and mushrooms. Occasionally they add meat to their diet in the form of insects, bird eggs, mice and rats. Pregnant red pandas might also consume lizards and small birds.
Red pandas’ digestive systems are much more adapted to meat than to a mostly vegetarian diet. Because the pandas absorb so few nutrients from bamboo, meals cycles through their bodies in two to four hours, enabling them to eat a third of their body weight throughout the day. Their metabolisms are extremely slow, which allows them to conserve energy, and their metabolic rates become even lower during especially cold spells. They remain warm during these periods because of the thick hair that grows over their whole bodies.
Many zoos offer their captive red pandas more nutritionally balanced diets than the animals find in the wild. The pandas always should have access to bamboo, but they can also benefit from primate leaf-eater biscuits, beet pulp, grasses and small amounts of fruit. The best way to monitor a red panda’s diet usually is by weighing the animal and adjusting portions if the panda gains or loses weight. Wild adults range from about 6 1/2 to 11 pounds, while captive animals might be 11 to 13 pounds, possibly because they receive better nutrition. Red pandas always should have fresh water in their enclosures, but they’re good at flipping over their bowls, so water should be in a heavy or securely fastened container.
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