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Winter 2010

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

giant panda

January 19, 2010

The panda in winter: almost like home

On the coldest days, visitors to the National Zoo might see giant pandas at their liveliest. "They love the snow," says Don Moore, associate director of animal care sciences, who knows how to tell when the bears are happy: "when you see them romping and playing."

Unlike most other temperate-climate bears, pandas don't hibernate in the winter. In China, they eke out an existence in the mountains, descending to an elevation of about 5,000 feet in the winter to eat mostly bamboo stalks, avoiding the leaves, which contain diminished protein in the cold months.

Pandas aren't the only mammals on the zoo's Asia Trail that are outdoors and active year-round. Those with smaller body masses (clouded leopards, fishing cats and small-clawed otters) can retreat to heated rocks if they're chilled. The giant pandas, however, will sometimes stretch out with their bellies up, a posture that easily loses heat, says Moore. "They would like it even colder."

SOURCES: Smithsonian's National Zoo; "Feeding strategy and resource partitioning between giant and red pandas," Wei, F., Feng, Z., Wang, Z. and Li, M., Mammalia