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Panda Power in D.C.
New panda exhibit opens at National Zoo
By Michael Murphy
Scholastic Kids Press Corps


Check out a slideshow of photos from Michael's trip to the zoo. Pick up tips on how to "shoot" animals.
The pandas in the nation's capital have a new home! The Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat and Asia Trail opens to the public on October 17. It provides more space for the panda family that lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The new habitat took three years to plan and two years to build. It will provide lots of space to grow for Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub, Tai Shan.

"First of all, we now have a panda cub, so we really needed the space," said Kara Blonde, Exhibit Developer for the newly developed Asia Trail. The new cub celebrated his first birthday at the zoo in July.

Included in the exhibit is an indoor cubbing den. A cubbing den is a private place for the mother and cub to spend time together out of the public eye.

"The panda mother will not go out and leave the den for some time right after the panda is born," Blonde said. "So this is a carefully designed place for that to happen."

The zoo also needed room for its red pandas and some new animals they are adding. Along with Japanese giant salamanders, the new exhibit will be home to fishing cats, a giant sloth, and four other species. All are part of a giant panda's natural habitat.

Pandas Like to Eat

Pandas eat bamboo, both in the zoo and in the wild. Zoo pandas also eat biscuits with vitamins and protein added. The extra goodies are necessary because bamboo has little nutritional value.

If bamboo has such little nutritional value, why do pandas like it so much? Nutritionist Mark Edwards says it's because of where they live, in central China.


panda
"Where pandas live there is bamboo everywhere, so it's like living in a salad bowl," Edwards said. "Every where you turn there is something to eat. So they don't have to spend a lot of activity or energy actually finding their food."

Because the nutrient level is low, panda energy is also low. They don't do much more than eat and sleep.

The lack of bamboo in natural areas is the main reason for the decreasing number of pandas. Only about 1,600 now live in the wild in China. Zoo programs to breed pandas are an important part of preserving the species.

Edwards said one way to help save pandas is to learn about them.

"It's not only important to study the animal, but to study the plants that they live with, and the environment that they live in," he said. "It's really important for us to learn from the pandas here at the National Zoo."

The new exhibit is designed with just that in mind. Zoo scientists installed a video and audio monitoring devices to follow the pandas' every move. You can watch the pandas yourself on the panda cam on the zoo's Web site.