Bamboo Persists in Panda Gut, claims Study

Bamboo Persists in Panda Gut, claims Study

Giant Pandas face an evolutionary dilemma!

In a study published online on May 19, in the journal mBio, researchers reveal that the gut bacteria of giant pandas have not evolved to effectively digest bamboo, which forms their primary food source.

Today, giant pandas spend almost 14 hours of their day eating bamboo. Though they have adapted to this eating behaviour by developing powerful jaw and teeth and an enlarged pseudothumbs to grasp bamboo stems, the microorganisms in their gut are not adept at breaking down this prime food source. They are only able to digest about 17 percent of the bamboo they ingest.

The present study that lasted for over a year, consisted of 45 healthy pandas living at the Chengdu Research Base. The researchers analyzed the animal’s poop to zero in on their gut bacteria. They also collected 112 fecal samples from panda cubs, juveniles and adults. Except for the cubs, each panda ate about 10 kilograms of bamboo and bamboo shoots every day.

The researchers found undigested bamboo fragments in the animal’s feces. The animal's microbiome, that is the bacteria living in the stomach and intestine did not contain plant-disintegrating bacteria, such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides, which are widespread in other herbivorous animals. Instead, most of the panda's gut was covered with bacteria such as Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus, which are normally found in meat eaters.

In the case of pandas, such gut bacteria can be linked to their ancestors. The giant panda has evolved from bears, who were omnivorous. In was some seven million years ago that they began eating bamboo. The present exclusive dependence on bamboo started only two million years ago. This is the reason why the digestive system of these animals is still not specialized to digest fibrous plant material.

Researchers called for further studies to study any evolutionary changes in the panda’s digestive system, that might take place in future.

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