Why are Panda Babies so Very Small?

With all of the press the cubs at both the Atlanta and National Zoos have received, the public has come to realize just how very small a newborn panda is.

Recently, the Huffington Post published an article discussing just why panda cubs are so tiny.  It’s a great question when you consider that a newborn panda is approximately the size of a stick of butter and only about 1/900th the size of it’s mother.  The question becomes even more profound when you consider that much of the infant mortality rate of panda cubs is attributable to their small size and complete helplessness.  So WHY, then, are pandas born so small.

Atlanta Zoo Twins - copyright Atlanta Zoo

atlanta twins

According to wildlife biologist Dajun Wang, the answer is “bamboo”.  Dr. Wang’s research focuses on the wildlife ecology in western China with a primary focus on endangered species population and habitat management under human disturbance. He started his wildlife research career studying wild giant pandas in 1993, and received his Ph.D in 2003 on wild giant panda movement, activities and home range. Then he expanded the research field from the individuals’ observation to habitat fragmentation, and then to the biodiversity in the mountains of western China.

Dr. Wang told the Huffington post that the tiny birth size is “definitely a result of evolution of millions of years,”.  He expanded to say that “It is [a] kind of breeding strategy.”

The strategy, Wang explains, is due to the fact that Pandas subsist almost entirely on bamboo, which has a very low nutritional value.  Says Wang, “It is easier for the animal to convert bamboo into milk than to convert bamboo into animal tissue,” said Wang.  The tradeoffs, however, are that the babies require more care from their mothers to nurse, keep warm, avoid predators, etc.

Read the full Huffington Post article HERE