Just how well can pandas digest bamboo? 

That’s the question at the center of new research published this week in mBio, which examined the gut bacteria of pandas (by looking at their poop) and found the animals’ stomachs are more closely related to carnivores.

As Nature explains:

To study the panda’s gut microbiome, researchers in China sequenced ribosomal RNA in faeces collected from 45 pandas of different ages over the course of a year. The scientists compared the microbes found in the panda faeces to those in the faeces of other mammals, such as bears, lions, horses and kangaroos.

The team found little diversity in the microorganisms that live in panda guts, and none of the cellulose-degrading bacteria typically seen in other plant-eaters. Instead, the pandas’ guts were dominated by Escherichia, Shigella and Streptococcus bacteria, which are normally found in carnivores.

About 2 million years ago, pandas switched to a bamboo-dominated diet, and today, the bears spend about 14 hours a day eating bamboo plants. They consume upwards of 27 pounds (about 12 kilograms) of bamboo daily, but only digest about 17 percent of what they eat.

So the question is still an open one: Why, if pandas have been eating bamboo for so many years, haven’t their microbiomes caught up?

Speaking to Nature, at least one researcher cautioned it’s premature to draw a link between the type of bacteria found in a panda’s stomach and the species’ overall decline. 

For this study, researchers only looked at microbial type, not function, and as Nature also points out, other research suggests some types of panda gut bacteria can break down cellulose into sugars that are easier to process.

Read the full study: The Bamboo-Eating Giant Panda Harbors a Carnivore-Like Gut Microbiota, with Excessive Seasonal Variations

(Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Creative Commons, San Diego Shooter)

Panda news from WNPR’s The Beaker. -Emily

This is really such an interesting study…


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