Crazy pandas! They should be carnivores, I mean, they’re bears, for goodness sake! But their diet is 99% bamboo.
The animals are built like carnivores, too. A genomic study on the wild panda in 2009 proved that that the bears have none of the features that other herbivores (like cows) have to breakdown the tough cellulose fibers of bamboo.
In fact, of the 12.5 kg (27.5 lbs) of bamboo the pandas eat in a day, they’re only able to digest about 17% of it. According to National Geographic News:
This explains why pandas also evolved a sluggish, energy-conserving lifestyle.
Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to look at the microorganisms that live in the guts of these bears. So they grabbed some panda poop, or, rather, stool samples from seven wild pandas and eight captive pandas. (Their diets vary a bit.)
Analyzing the samples, the researchers found 13 different types of Clostridium-related bacteria, known to breakdown cellulose. Of those, seven were unique to the pandas compared to other mammals. The researchers conclude that these microbes allow the panda to gain extra energy from the bamboo stalks.
Nature News describes this extraordinary feat in context:
These microbes are part of a suite of evolutionary adaptations — alongside powerful jaws and teeth, and pseudo-thumbs, bones that allow them to grip plant stalks — that help pandas to live on bamboo, despite having a carnivore's digestive system.
The new research is published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Image: Mfield, Matthew Field/Wikipedia