Nutrition involves a series of processes whereby an animal uses items in its external environment to support internal metabolism (Robbins, 1993). The nutrition and consequent nutritional status of an animal are basic to all aspects of health, including growth, reproduction and disease resistance. Thus, appropriate nutrition and feeding are essential to a comprehensive animal management and preventative medicine programme.
The giant panda's obligate dependence upon bamboo as a primary energy and nutrient source has been well described (Sheldon, 1937; Schaller et al., 1985). Many aspects of panda biology are directly related to its adaptations for utilisation of this highly fibrous, low energy density food, thus demonstrating the inseparable influence of nutrition on behaviour, reproduction and other physiological functions. There may be few other species that more effectively illustrate how an understanding of nutritional adaptations helps us interpret the species ecology.
This chapter describes insights into the nutritional adaptations of the giant panda while identifying priority research that will fill gaps in our understanding of these unique abilities. Historical and current strategies on feeding giant pandas in captivity are presented along with recommendations for improving nutrition and dietary husbandry to promote health and feeding behaviours.
ANATOMY, PHYSIOLOGY, GUIDELINES AND ASSESSMENT
Feeding ecology and anatomical adaptations to a herbivorous diet
More than 99% of the food consumed by the free-ranging giant panda consists of bamboo (Schaller et al., 1985). Yet the giant panda is unique in that it has the relatively simple gastrointestinal tract of a carnivore.