According to a new study on intestinal bacteria, the pandas are not well suited to their favorite food - bamboo

Giant pandas have the "wrong types" of gut bacteria to efficiently digest bamboo, suggest the scientists.

Although they spend up to 14 hours a day munching on about 12.5 kg of plant stems and leaves, animals can only digest about 17% of what they consume.

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Chinese scientists have shown that the gut microbiota of giant pandas - the microscopic plant and animal life found naturally in the gut - does not appear to have adapted to bamboo.

Giant pandas have had a diet almost exclusively based on bamboo for about 2 million years, but they evolved from bears that ate both plants and meat.

Previous research has suggested that bears' digestive systems are better suited to a carnivorous diet, leaving researchers puzzled by how animals digest and eat bamboo.

It was thought that the pandas' gut microbiota, which aids in digestion and absorption of nutrients, may have shown a specialization towards a herbivorous diet.

However, the results of the new study showed that the gut microbiota of bears is not made up of plant-degrading bacteria like Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides, but other bacteria like Escherichia and Streptococcus.

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“Unlike other phytophagous animals that have successfully developed anatomically specialized digestive systems to effectively deconstruct fibrous plant material, the giant panda still retains a digestive tract typical of carnivores,” said Dr. Zhihe Zhang, member of the research team from the Chengdu Research Base, which breeds giant pandas in China.

In addition, pandas do not have the genes necessary for the production of enzymes that digest plants.

“This combined scenario could have increased their risk of extinction,” said Dr. Zhang.

Details of their findings are published in mBio, an online journal published by the American Society for Microbiology.

To complete their research, the team examined 121 droppings from 45 captive giant pandas, using a laboratory sequencing method to assess the gut microbiota.

The results, as well as previous examinations of nine other captive pandas and seven wild individuals showed extremely low diversity in the gut microbiota.

They also show an overall composition typical of omnivorous and carnivorous bears, entirely different from that of other herbivores, with low levels of bacteria that are believed to break down the resistant cellulose present in their bamboo-based diet.

bamboo forest

The gut microbiota of this herbivore may therefore not have adapted well to its highly fibrous diet, which suggests a potential link with its poor digestive efficiency.

The researchers hope to conduct further studies to try to understand the role and function of the panda's gut microbiota on its health and nutrition.

Giant pandas are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, with fewer than 2,500 adults left in the wild.

These populations are limited to the mountains of south-central China. About 300 pandas are estimated to live in captivity, mostly in China.


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