Phenological changes in bamboo carbohydrates explain the preference for culm over leaves by giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) during spring.

Research paper by Katrina K KK Knott, Amelia L AL Christian, Josephine F JF Falcone, Carrie K CK Vance, Laura L LL Bauer, George C GC Fahey, Andrew J AJ Kouba

Indexed on: 15 Jun '17Published on: 15 Jun '17Published in: PloS one


Seasonal changes in the foodscape force herbivores to select different plant species or plant parts to meet nutritional requirements. We examined whether the search for calorie-rich carbohydrates explained giant panda's selection for bamboo culm over leaves during spring. Leaves and culms were collected from four Phyllostachys bamboos (P. aurea, P. aureosulcata, P. glauca, and P. nuda) once per month over 18-27 months. Monthly changes in annual plant part nutrients were examined, and compared to seasonal foraging behaviors of captive giant pandas. Although total fiber was greater (p<0.0001) in culm (85.6 ± 0.5%) than leaves (55.3 ± 0.4%) throughout the year, culm fiber was at its lowest in spring (79-85%) when culm selection by giant pandas exceeded 70% of their overall diet. Culm starch also was greatest (p = 0.044) during spring (5.5 ± 1.1%) and 2.5-fold the percentage of starch in leaves (2.2 ± 0.6%). The free sugars in spring culm consisted of a high proportion of glucose (35%) and fructose (47%), whereas sucrose made up 42% of the total free sugar content of spring leaves. Bound sugars in culm consisted of 60% glucose and 38% xylose likely representative of hemicellulose. The concentrations of bound sugars (hemicelluloses) in spring culms (543.7 ± 13.0 mg/g) was greater (p<0.001) than in leaves (373.0 ± 14.8 mg/g). These data help explain a long-standing question in giant panda foraging ecology: why consume the plant part with the lowest protein and fat during the energetically intensive spring breeding season? Giant pandas likely prefer spring culm that contains abundant mono- and polysaccharides made more bioavailable as a result of reduced fiber content. These data suggest that phenological changes in bamboo plant part nutrition drive foraging decisions by giant pandas.