Panda’s may live on an almost exclusively plant-based diet, but according to new research, their nutrient intake looks more like a carnivores — a finding that may help shed light on longstanding questions regarding the panda’s dietary evolution.
In a study published in Current Biology, researchers found that the protein and carbohydrate content of Panda’s diets is strikingly similar to that of ‘hypercarnivores’ — a class of meat-eating animals that derives 70 percent of more of their food from eating other animals.
‘As we know, the giant panda is a Carnivora species, yet extremely specialized on a plant food, the bamboo,’ said Fuwen Wei of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing who authored the study.
Pandas may come from carnivores but their diets don’t reflect their heritage. New research shows that their nutrient intake does, however
‘Based on what they eat, they absolutely belong to the herbivores, but considering the macronutrient composition of the ingested and absorbed diets, they belong to the carnivores.’
Additionally, while the panda species has some in common with herbivores, including a skull and jaw musculature that is more in line with fibrous plant-based diets — also a so-called ‘pseudo-thumb’ which is adept at handling bamboo — elements of their digestive tract and stomach enzymes mirror those of other carnivorous animals.
This could help explain mystery behind the modern panda’s diet that has long confounded researchers.
Specifically, it would help shed light on how the animals, which come from a carnivorous class of creatures, made the transition from eating meat to dining almost exclusively on bamboo.
What was once thought to be a drastic evolutionary leap by scientists is, on a nutritional scale, more of a side step, according to new research.
‘The transition was likely more superficial than assumed, combining substantial adaptation to new food types with relatively smaller changes in macronutrient handling,’ say the researchers.
Scientists note that despite the more superficial changes to the pandas musculature and body, organs associated with their diet have changed very little over time.
Study of pandas has become particularly important because of robust conservation efforts which have helped cobble populations back from endangerment
In addition to broadening biologists evolutionary understanding of pandas, scientists say that the method also represents an important lesson when studying the dietary habits of animals.
‘There is also a broader message from this study,’ says David Raubenheimer a nutritionist from the University of Sydney who was involved in the study.
‘It demonstrates the importance of considering both foods and nutrients in understanding the evolutionary ecology of animals. This is what nutritional geometry is designed to do.’
Wild pandas, long an endangered species, were downgraded to ‘vulnerable’ in 2016, due to conservation efforts that helped raise the population by 17 percent in one decade.
Conservationists are quick to note, however, that panda’s status is still imperiled, most notably by the specter of climate change.
According to researchers, climate change threatens to wipe out much of the world’s bamboo which could but the creatures at risk once more.
What do you need to know about panda cubs?
When pandas are born, they are hairless and pink. Their black-and-white coat only starts to grow when they are about six months old
Most panda cubs are born in the months of June, July and August.
When it is born, a baby panda is hairless and pink. It starts to have a black-and-white coat at around six months old.
A cub typically weighs 100-200 grams (four to eight ounces) at birth. At China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, when a panda is born overweight, special care will be given by the keepers.
A baby panda is fed with breast milk from its mother. It starts to eat solid food, such as bamboo, when it reaches one year old.
Cubs do not open their eyes until they are six to eight weeks of age and are not mobile until three months old.
Panda cubs are born with soft fingernails, which will grow to be thick, hard claws.
At about five to seven months old, cubs are ready to climb trees.