Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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Study Reports that Pandas Have Poor Digestive System


(Photo : REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER) Giant pandas Yuan Zi (L) and Huan Huan relax inside their enclosure at the ZooParc de Beauval in Saint-Aignan, Central France.

According to a new study, giant panda poop poses a particular “evolutionary dilemma.”

Scientists have discovered that the bears are also poorly adapted for digesting bamboo, despite the plant being almost the only thing they eat. The research shows that two million years after shifting to a herbivore lifestyle, the giant panda still has carnivore-like gut bacteria, which is better at breaking down protein.

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A genetic analysis of 121 samples of panda poop finds that the community of microbes living inside these animals’ guts is optimized to digest meat.

A team of researchers based out of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China, analyzed the feces of 45 healthy giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. They spent a year examining each panda and discovered that the bears apparently have a digestive system that is “entirely differentiated from other herbivores”.

The digestive tract of the giant panda does not have the Bacteroidetes and Ruminococcaceae bacteria which are great at breaking down tough fibers. Apparently, the giant panda still has the stomach bacteria of the omnivorous bear from which it evolved.

In some ways, giant pandas have adapted to their unusual vegetarian eating habits. They have “powerful jaws and teeth” to break down copious amounts of cellulose, the study said.

However, it appeared that evolution abandoned giant pandas. They did not develop a longer gut to give themselves more time to break down stubborn plant parts, as other herbivores did. Nor did they adjust their DNA to make different kinds of enzymes that would have helped them digest bamboo.

“This result is unexpected and quite interesting, because it implies the giant panda’s gut microbiota may not have well adapted to its unique diet, and places pandas at an evolutionary dilemma,” said study co-author Xiaoyan Pang from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China.

Pandas are notoriously poor breeders, but the new study provides another reason giant pandas are endangered in the wild. Without the anatomy, biology or microbiome to efficiently digest their only source of food, perhaps it’s a wonder they’ve survived this long.

New study appeared in the online journal mBio.

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