The panda, or more accurately known as the Giant Panda is a true bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognizable by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body.

Despite being a true bear, a panda does not hunt down prey. So, just what does a panda really eat?

Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivore, the giant panda's diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. Its ability to digest cellulose is due to the presence of specialised microbes in its gut.

The giant panda is therefore a highly specialized animal with unique adaptations having evolved to live in bamboo forests for millions of years.

The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 pounds) of bamboo shoots a day. Because the giant panda consumes a diet low in nutrition, it is important for it to keep its digestive tract full. The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the panda's behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain in order to limit its energy expenditures.

Surprisingly, two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and its round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon has this to say on the matter:

'...like the vegetarian gorilla, the low body surface area to body volume of the giant panda is indicative of a lower metabolic rate. This lower metabolic rate and a more sedentary lifestyle allow the giant panda to subsist on nutrient poor resources such as bamboo...'

Similarly, the giant panda's round face is the result of powerful jaw muscles. These are attached from the top of the head to the jaw enabling large molars crush and grind fibrous plant material.

Pandas eat any of twenty-five bamboo species in the wild, such as Fargesia dracocephala and Fargesia rufa. Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems have less. Given this large diet, the giant panda can defecate up to 40 times a day!

Because of the synchronous flowering, death, and regeneration of all bamboo within a single species, the giant panda must have at least two different species available in its range to avoid starvation. While primarily herbivorous, the giant panda still retains decidedly carnivorous teeth, enabling the panda to eat meat, fish, and eggs when available. In captivity, zoos typically maintain the giant panda's bamboo diet, though some will provide specially-formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.

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