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Pandas Are An Evolutionary Dilemma

 
 
 
 
 
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Pandas’ guts are dominated by carnivore-like gut bacteria despite two million years of adopting herbivore lifestyle, a new study says.

Giant pandas follow a strict plant-eating diet, feeding almost always on bamboo; however, the new study published by the American Society for Microbiology on Tuesday, suggests that these bears are poorly adapted for a plant-eating diet due to a total lack of plant-degrading bacteria in their stomachs.

“Unlike other plant-eating animals that have successfully evolved, anatomically specialized digestive systems to efficiently deconstruct fibrous plant matter, the giant panda still retains a gastrointestinal tract typical of carnivores,” said Zhihe Zhang, the lead study author and director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China.

These animals also do not have the genes for plant-digesting enzymes in their own genome and this might have increased their risk of extinction, he further added.

According to the new study, giant pandas’ guts are host to idle and unhelpful bacteria suitable solely for a meat-eating diet, and for this reason, although they have to spend some 14 hours a day chewing and eating stems, shoots and leaves of bamboo up to 12.5 kilograms, they can only digest about 17 percent of what they eat.

The researchers employed a technique called 16S rRNA sequencing to analyze 121 fecal samples from 45 giant pandas.

“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 Xiaoyan Pang, study co-author and an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Their gut microbiota also differs from season to season, with late fall being quite different from spring and summer. The shortage of bamboo shoots in late fall could be a significant factor, Pang further said.

The research team has a plan to conduct a follow-up study to fully understand the function of the panda’s gut microbiota on the animal’s nutrition and health.

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