Pandas’ gut bacteria resemble carnivores’

Unlike other vegetarians, the bamboo eaters lack plant-digesting microbes

pandas eating

FOOD ISSUES Since adopting a bamboo diet around 2 million years ago, giant pandas still haven’t fully adapted to the fibrous food: Their guts don’t harbor the plant-degrading bacteria typical of other herbivores.

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A giant panda may look like a teddy bear, but it’s got the guts of a grizzly.

Microbes living in the bamboo lovers’ intestines match those of meat eaters, researchers report May 19 in mBio. Panda poop lacks the useful plant-digesting bacteria typically found in the feces of other herbivores, an analysis of 45 giant pandas revealed. The results come as a surprise, the researchers say — bamboo dominates the bears’ diet. They can spend 14 hours munching stems, shoots and leaves — up to 12.5 kilograms every day, or about the weight of a 2-year-old boy.

Because pandas don’t have the intestinal equipment to fully digest the fibrous grass, researchers had thought that the bears might rely on gut bacteria to wring out some nutrients. But the new results hint that the bears’ bacteria can’t cope with high-fiber food, either. Picky eating habits and a gutful of unhelpful bacteria could make it hard for giant pandas to survive as a species, the study’s authors suggest.

Meghan Rosen headhsot

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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