Captive Pandas: Are We Raising Them to be Picky-Eaters?

5402340884_e472d9f447Panda” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC 2.0

Thanks to aggressive conservation efforts by China and international groups, the population of giant pandas is beginning to stabilize, and the giant panda is no longer considered an endangered species. Despite the good news, captive breeding and release of captive-bred pandas are still needed to aid the giant panda in its continued recovery. While captive breeding programs have been quite successful, the first release of pandas born and reared in captivity, however, was far from a complete success. Three of the eight pandas died within one year of their release into the wild. The high mortality rate indicates much remains to be done to increase the post-release survival rate of captive-bred pandas.

For captive-bred animals to survive successfully in the wild, captive-release programs need to identify which skills necessary for survival may be impaired in a captive environment and work to ensure captive-reared animals develop these skills in captivity. While the causes of death for the released pandas are not known, the poor body condition of some of them suggests undernourishment could have been a contributing factor. Their undernourishment points to potentially compromised feeding behavior of pandas in captivity and the need for release programs to develop and nurture their feeding skills.

A study published in the journal Animal Conservation by Dr. Swaisgood et al. of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research looked at whether panda feeding behavior is negatively impacted by captivity. The researchers compared the feeding behaviors of giant pandas bred and raised in captivity with those of giant pandas born in the wild and brought into captivity to determine if there were differences. They found that feeding behaviors of the captive-bred pandas differed from those born in the wild in subtle ways that could make it more difficult for captive-bred pandas to survive in the wild.

The researchers also found that captive-bred pandas spent more time and energy eating less nutritious parts of the bamboo than the wild-born pandas. They determined captive-bred pandas spent most of their time eating the large, hollow stem part of the bamboo, whereas the wild pandas preferred the leaves. The captive-bred pandas also spent less time eating both the bamboo leaves and the smaller bamboo stems, whereas wild-born pandas preferred bamboo leaves over stems and preferred smaller stems over larger stems. These differences in feeding behavior can be very important to the health of pandas in the wild because leaves are more nutritious than the stems, and smaller stems are more nutritious than larger ones. Additionally, they found the captive-reared pandas spent less time chewing and biting on the more nutritious bamboo leaves than the wild-born pandas. Because of this, captive-bred giant pandas may be less efficient in taking in energy and nutrition than their wild-born counterparts.

Giant pandas are energy-limited, meaning they are limited by their energy intake despite spending a lot of their time foraging. Because they are energy-limited, even a marginal decrease in their feeding efficiency can be detrimental to their survival. This raises concerns that the compromised feeding behaviors observed in captive-bred pandas may negatively impact their ability to survive in the wild. More research, however, is needed to demonstrate that this is indeed the case. It is also unknown why captive-bred pandas prefer larger food pieces over smaller, more nutritious parts. Why is it they, like humans, seem to prefer the super-size but less healthy order? How can we foster better eating habits in captive-bred pandas?

Studies like this to help us understand panda feeding behavior are the first steps toward preparing captive-bred pandas for release into the wild. Panda breeding programs owe much of their current success to intensive efforts to understand panda breeding behavior. We need to apply similar strategies and efforts to understand panda behavior in the wild and use that knowledge to create an environment that will develop and nurture the necessary behavior in captive-bred pandas. This will help us address the challenges of successfully releasing captive-bred pandas into the wild so that we can ensure sustained recovery and expansion of the giant panda population.


Swaisgood, R. R., Martin‐Wintle, M. S., Owen, M. A., Zhou, X., & Zhang, H. (2018). Developmental stability of foraging behavior: evaluating suitability of captive giant pandas for translocation. Animal Conservation. Advance online publication.


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