Giant pandas have had a pretty rough time, let’s be honest. Our species obnoxiously barged into their unspoiled habitats and destroyed their homes to make way for our ever-bloating population. Failing to adapt fast enough to these environmental changes, their numbers were slashed and humans were forced to pick up the pieces and attempt to rekindle populations. But pandas aren’t really interested in mating in captivity, and even panda porn or Viagra doesn’t seem to get them in the mood, thwarting exhausting breeding efforts.
Millions of dollars are spent on conserving the animals each year, and although their numbers have witnessed a rise in recent years, some deem them a gross waste of money. In fact, one expert even said that reintroduction efforts are as “pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart.” And to make matters worse, it now turns out that the unfortunate beggars aren’t equipped with the right gut microbes to efficiently digest bamboo. Poor pandas.
Considering these porky animals spend an impressive 12 hours a day chomping on more than 12 kilograms (28 pounds) of bamboo, this is a bit of a conundrum for the species. Although they have been on a strict, bamboo-based vegetarian diet for some 2 million years now, it seems that wasn’t long enough to shake off ancestral adaptations to an omnivorous diet.
Since bamboo is not exactly bursting with nutritional value, and the animals can only digest around 17% of the stuff they eat, researchers have long wondered how they extract enough goodness from it to keep their bodies nourished.
To find out more, researchers from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China, began examining the microbes present in fecal samples obtained from 45 giant pandas of various maturities that lived at the base. These were collected over a period of one year during spring, summer and autumn months. Adults and juveniles were provided with a diet of predominantly bamboo, but some bread was included, whereas cubs drank their mother’s milk.
As described in the journal mBio, they found that regardless of diet, the animals’ gut microbiomes exhibited little diversity and resembled those found in carnivorous and omnivorous bear species. Furthermore, the pandas didn’t possess microbes commonly enriched in the guts of herbivores, such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteriodes, which help break down plant matter.
“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,” lead author Zhihe Zhang, director of the Chengdu Research Base, said in a statement. “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.”
While it seems that pandas’ guts are not suited for their chosen diet, the researchers plan to continue their investigation by scrutinizing the roles played by their gut microbes on nutrition and health.