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magazine home > archives > summer 2003 > features

A U of M biology faculty member does his part in protecting the critically endangered giant panda species.

The Bear Essentials
by Matt Timberlake

A clean, white jet cuts through the dark sky, thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean. A FedEx captain and his co-pilot sit at their posts, observing the plane's automatic controls. The flight seems like most any other for the shipping giant.

Ya Ya
Ya Ya munches on bamboo at the Memphis Zoo. U of M scientists are assisting Zoo with research on the ecology of bamboo.

But, in the belly of the plane, a strange noise emits from two sturdy freight boxes. The sound — a steady gnawing — signals that this flight may not be so usual after all.

Inside the boxes are two giant pandas who are diligently feeding themselves bamboo. Soon the pair, Ya Ya and Le Le, will land in Memphis to begin a much-anticipated 10-year stay in a new $30 million home at the Memphis Zoo.

Dr. Scott Franklin, a U of M assistant professor of biology, is one of the highly trained scientists whose research in some way could help the endangered species. Franklin's research focuses on the ecology of plants — not an area that first comes to mind when studying rare animals. Plant science, though, is crucial to the continued existence of giant pandas, whose diet is made up almost entirely of bamboo.

"The pandas and the bamboo are a community that must be protected together," says Franklin. "If we can better understand bamboo, we can learn how the pandas survive on a diet of it alone."

Franklin and U of M biology doctoral candidate Wei Wang have embarked on a 10-year study of the ecological aspects of bamboo and its place in the panda's diet. The majority of their work will be conducted from the U of M Life Sciences Building, though a trip to China, delayed by the SARS epidemic, is in the future.

Much of Franklin's research deals with the restoration patterns of bamboo after it has been foraged by pandas in the wild. Bamboo forests provide a home and sustenance for the bears. "We have found that after bamboo has been foraged, it doesn't skip a beat in coming back," he says.

Franklin says this is important because, with the largest population in the world, China is quickly running out of room to house its people. As buildings encroach further into the forests and mountains, the pandas must adapt to ever-smaller parcels of land and diminishing food sources. Thus, research such as Franklin's becomes increasingly important.

Franklin says if properties found in bamboo that are necessary to a panda's diet can be found in other natural or synthesized foods, a larger food source would be available.

Pandas such as Le Le and Ya Ya consume between 20 and 40 pounds of bamboo a day. They strip away the stalk's tough outer layer, eat the pithy insides and then gnaw on the woody strips.

One of the most critically endangered animals on Earth, fewer than 1,000 giant pandas live in their natural habitat in China's bamboo forests. Ya Ya, a 3-year-old female, and her male companion, Le Le, are the fourth pair on exhibit in the United States and only the ninth outside China.

For China to loan the mammals to other institutes, they must conduct some kind of research project aimed at helping scientists protect and enlarge its population. The Memphis Zoo's proposal stood out — it emphasizes research that focuses on the study of panda nutrition and their preference for bamboo. Other zoos,
such as the one in Washington, D.C., study panda reproduction.

The push to get pandas to Memphis came in the late 1990s, when a high-profile donor made the off-hand comment, "Wouldn't it be great to see some panda bears at this zoo," to a Memphis Zoo official. Jim Sasser, former U.S. senator and ambassador to China, played an important role in the acquisition.

The final decision rested on the merits of the zoo's conservation programs.

Franklin and Wang say the key to keeping giant pandas alive is in the bamboo forests. They say deep within the green shadow of that woody grass lies the future of this endangered species.

"If you protect the giant panda, you must too protect the bamboo forest, which is their habitat," says Wang.

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