National Panda Day: Seven things you didn’t know about pandas
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Thanks to their appearance, giant pandas have gained international fame as cute, cuddly creatures with a friendly demeanor. But this perception doesn’t reflect what pandas are really like in the wild, according to a panda researcher at the University of Florida.
“Pandas are very secretive and elusive,” said Vanessa Hull, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and conservation in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “They don’t like people. If you go and try to study them, they can smell you from a mile away. They like to be by themselves and maintain a level of mystery.”
However, the species still captures the imagination, and their global popularity continues to raise awareness about wildlife conservation, Hull said.
So for this year’s National Panda Day, March 16, here are some facts about pandas that will make you appreciate them even more.
- They eat a lot of bamboo.
“Pandas eat about 35 pounds of bamboo per day,” Hull said. But unlike cows or horses, which have digestive tracts built for processing plant matter, pandas are relatively inefficient at turning all that bamboo into energy, digesting less than 20 percent of the bamboo they eat. Just to get enough calories, pandas will spend up to 14 hours a day eating bamboo. “And when they’re not eating, they’re usually sleeping,” she said.
- They have complex social networks
Though pandas are mostly solitary creatures, they have some unique ways of keeping track of each other, Hull said.
“Pandas have a very strong sense of smell and leave scent marks in areas throughout their habitat,” she said. “Other pandas can tell from that scent who that individual was, their sex, when they were there and whether they’re ready to mate.”
- Pandas are fierce fighters
“During the mating season, fighting among wild pandas can be very fierce — that’s something a lot of people don’t often know about pandas,” Hull said. “A lot of times you’ll see male pandas in the wild who are missing pieces of their ears from fighting other males.”
- No one really knows why they have those markings, but there are some theories.
“One theory I find interesting is that, because their energy budget is so tight, pandas don’t want to spend energy fighting their neighbors,” Hull said. So, those distinct black and white markings might make it easier to spot each other and keep their distance, she said.
- They have some unique adaptations.
“Pandas have evolved what’s called an enlarged wrist bone. It juts out from their wrist and looks like a sixth digit,” Hull said. “It makes them adept at handling bamboo and eating it quickly.”
- They live in close proximity to humans
“One of the central goals of my research is to understand interactions between people and wildlife, and how those interactions shape sustainability for endangered species,” Hull said. “One thing about the panda world that a lot of people don’t fully comprehend is how closely pandas live to people. In China, thousands of people live inside nature reserves where pandas live, and we have to come up with creative ways of involving the local people in conservation,” Hull said.
- Like all wildlife, pandas need habitat to live and reproduce
“Many endangered species face similar challenges: a limited amount of space and an expanding human population,” Hull said.
“One theme in Florida conservation is to create corridors that connect patches of habitat where endangered wildlife, such as the Florida Panther, live. In China, where pandas are native, we are also trying to figure out ways to connect these pieces of habitat and allow them a chance to interact and increase genetic diversity,” she said.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.