China: Pandas Digest Bamboo Pretty Badly

The giant panda eats bamboo as its primary food source, however, a recent study done by researchers from the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai show that the endangered pandas can’t digest bamboo very well. The study was done by examining the panda droppings and their gut bacteria from their intestines. The exam showed that while the pandas eat bamboo as their main food, they don’t have many kinds of gut bacteria capable of digesting this fibrous plant. Surprisingly, the study showed that the pandas mostly have the types of gut bacteria seen in meat-eating animals.

Panda Ancestors Didn’t Have To Digest Bamboo Alone

The study suggested that it is possible that panda ancestors ate meat and plants and didn’t have to digest bamboo alone as they were to travel over their ancient territories. It is known that the extinct giant pandas in the past ate bamboo around seven million years ago, however, as of about two million years ago pandas evolved into exclusively eating bamboo.

Today’s pandas eat bamboo for about 14 hours a day as they travel around their territories, but they can’t digest bamboo very well at all. However, they do have strong teeth and jaws to chew bamboo plants, as well as very large pseudo-thumbs, which means their wrist bones have evolved into an appendage like the human thumb to help the animals hold onto the bamboo to eat it. They can, however, only digest 17 percent of the bamboo they eat, thus they have to eat large amounts of this plant to survive.

China: Pandas Digest Bamboo Pretty Badly - Clapway

No Plant Digestion Genes, So Can’t Digest Bamboo Properly

The mystery that the researchers were trying to decipher was how the panda had gut bacteria like meat eaters, and didn’t evolve a special digestive system to digest the bamboo they now eat. Instead, according to a lead researcher at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, said they have the digestion system of a carnivore. According to their research, this fact is part of what increases the risk of the giant panda becoming extinct.
The study involved an analysis of bacteria in the gut of 45 pandas at the Chengdu Research center.

The pandas there eat about 22 pounds or 10 kilos of bamboo and its shoots, as well as almost 2 pounds or 800 grams of steamed bread a day. However, their poop is always full of particles of undigested bamboo since they can’t digest bamboo properly.