Image credit: lrargerich/Flickr
Most bears, though typically carnivorous, are opportunistic omnivores that choose to eat whatever is most readily available. There are, of course, exceptions. Polar bears, for instance, survive almost exclusively on meat. Ants make up the majority of the diet for the insectivorous sloth bear. Then, there is the giant panda—one of the few bears that is primarily herbivorous—which spends its days munching on bamboo.
A close examination of the newly sequenced panda genome, however, has revealed that, in spite of this preference, the giant panda lacks the innate ability to digest bamboo.
Image credit: dps/Flickr
Subsisting on bamboo, it turns out, is not an easy task for a bear. Without the unique genetic material to breakdown cellulose and turn the plant into energy, the panda's are left with a diet relatively devoid of essential nutrients. Mike Bruford, a professor at the Cardiff School of Biosciences who has been studying the panda genome, explained:
The panda is a true bear and is a carnivore, so it possesses the genes necessary for being a meat-eater and yet its diet is almost exclusively herbivorous. This may suggest that it relies on microbes in its gut to digest bamboo rather than on anything in its genetic make-up.
Though pandas don't have the traits required to digest the bamboo, their choice to favor it in their diet may be genetically motivated. "Taste is also important when it comes to the development of dietary habits," Bruford said, "and the sequencers discovered mutations in the panda's T1R1 gene which may affect its ability to taste meat, one possible explanation for why a potential carnivore would rely on a strict bamboo diet."
Genetically motivated or not, the inefficiency of the panda diet has certainly influenced their lifestyle. Like herbivorous gorillas, pandas have developed a slow metabolism and a routine that limits unnecessary movement. This includes social interactions—like mating—and travel in steep terrain.
The goal of the team's research was to demonstrate the value of the genomic sequencing and comparison of mammals as a tool for annotating the human genome and the efficiency of a particular sequencing technique. Their findings, however, provide valuable insight into panda biology—information that will help zoologists and conservations struggling to preserve the endangered species.
Read more about pandas:
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China's Giant Panda Could Be Extinct Soon (2-3 Generations)
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