Carnivore Tummies Make Pandas Inefficient Bamboo Munchers

The lack of plant-degrading gut microbes and enzymes mean that pandas can only digest 17 percent of the bamboo they eat.

AsianScientist (May 27, 2015) – It’s no wonder that giant pandas are always chewing and eating, say Chinese researchers: their gut bacteria are not the type for efficiently digesting bamboo.

The bamboo-eating giant panda actually harbors a carnivore-like gut microbiota predominated by bacteria such as Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus, according to research published in mBio®.

“Unlike other plant-eating animals that have successfully evolved anatomically specialized digestive systems to efficiently deconstruct fibrous plant matter, the giant panda still retains a gastrointestinal tract typical of carnivores,” said study lead author Professor Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China.

“The animals also do not have the genes for plant-digesting enzymes in their own genome. This combined scenario may have increased their risk for extinction.”

Giant pandas evolved from bears that ate both plants and meat and started eating bamboo exclusively about two million years ago, according to the researchers. The animals spend up to 14 hours daily consuming up to 27.5 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of bamboo leaves and stems but can digest only about 17 percent of it; their feces is mainly composed of undigested bamboo fragments.

Researchers had been intrigued by how the animals digest bamboo fiber and extract nutrients from it, said study coauthor Associate Professor Pang Xiaoyan, from the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“This result is unexpected and quite interesting, because it implies the giant panda’s gut microbiota may not have well adapted to its unique diet and places pandas at an evolutionary dilemma,” said Pang.

To evaluate the panda gut microbiota, Pang and colleagues used a laboratory technique called 16S ribosomal ribonucleic acid (rRNA) sequencing. They performed the technique on 121 fecal samples from 45 giant pandas (24 adults, 16 juveniles and five unweaned cubs) living in Zhang’s Research Base. Samples were obtained during the spring, summer and late autumn of one year.

Juvenile and adult pandas ate at least 22 pounds (10 kg) of bamboo and bamboo shoots each day and 1.1 to 1.7 pounds (500 to 800 grams) of steamed bread. Total fecal weight was 22 to 33 pounds (10-15 kg) per day. The cubs had just fresh milk from their mothers.

The investigators found that despite their diet, these giant pandas, together with nine captive and seven wild individuals investigated previously, showed extremely low gut microbiota diversity and an overall structure that diverged from non-panda plant-eaters but was similar to carnivorous and omnivorous bears.

The giant panda gut did not harbor plant-degrading bacteria such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides that are typically enriched in other herbivores, but was instead predominated by Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus.

Panda gut microbiota was also found to vary by season, with late autumn being quite different from spring and summer. The lack of bamboo shoots in late autumn could be an important factor, Pang said. The research team is planning a follow-up study combining different scientific techniques to further understand the function of the panda’s gut microbiota on the animals’ nutrition and health.

The article can be found at: Xue et al. (2015) The Bamboo-Eating Giant Panda Harbors A Carnivore-Like Gut Microbiota, With Excessive Seasonal Variations.


Source: American Society for Microbiology; Photo: fortherock/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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