Tag Archives: giant panda

How giant pandas stay chubby solely on a bamboo diet: fattening gut bacteria

Giant panda enjoying a bamboo shoot meal. Credit: Pixabay.

Although pandas subsist almost entirely on bamboo, plants with very little nutritional value, they are all on the chubby side. While it’s true that the rare mammals compensate for the poor calorie content by eating up to 80 pounds of bamboo per day, a new study has revealed that symbiotic gut bacteria also play a crucial role in fattening pandas and preparing them for when only bamboo leaves are available to chew on.

Like other bears, giant pandas possess the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have evolved to depend almost entirely on various bamboo species. For most of the year, pandas feed on fibrous bamboo leaves, but during the shoot-eating season in late spring and early summer, they get to enjoy newly sprouted bamboo shoots that are rich in protein. It’s no coincidence that during this season they’re also at their chubbiest.

Researchers led by Fuwen Wei at the Institute of Zoology have been studying wild giant pandas living in the Qinling Mountains in central China for decades. Their research showed that the animals have a much higher level of a bacterium called Clostridium butyricum in their gut during the shoot-eating season compared with during the leaf-eating season. 

That’s quite common since many animals experience a seasonal shift in their microbiota as a result of changes in the availability of food. For instance, some monkeys have different gut bacteria in the summer when they eat fresh leaves and fruit compared to the winter, when they mainly feed on tree bark. Humans are no exception — Hazda people, one of the last hunter-gatherer communities left in the world, experience similar shifts in their gut bacteria as the available food changes throughout the year.

In order to investigate whether the Clostridium butyricum was having any effect on the pandas’ metabolism, the researchers performed fecal transplants of panda poop collected from the wild to germ-free mice. The mice were then fed a bamboo-based diet that mimicked what the pandas normally eat for three weeks.

“For endangered and vulnerable wild animals, we can’t really run tests on them directly. Our research created a mouse model for future fecal transplant experiments that can help study wild animals’ gut microbiota,” said first author Guangping Huang, from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The rodents transplanted with the panda feces from the shoot-eating season gained significantly more weight and had more fat than mice transplanted with feces from the leaf-eating season. Both groups of mice consumed the same amount of food, which means the bacteria must be doing something to help the animals gain weight.

On closer inspection, the researchers in China found that a metabolic product of C. butyricum, butyrate, upregulates the expression of a circadian rhythm gene called Per2, which increases lipid synthesis and storage.

“This is the first time we established a causal relationship between a panda’s gut microbiota and its phenotype,” said Huang. “We’ve known these pandas have a different set of gut microbiota during the shoot-eating season for a long time, and it’s very obvious that they are chubbier during this time of the year.”

Identifying which microorganisms in the panda’s gut play crucial roles in their health is highly important for conservation. There are only a few thousands giant pandas left in the wild, and captured pandas need to be fed the right diet to prepare them for rewilding. The research may also benefit humans, as many diseases that afflict us can be treated with probiotics.

The findings appeared in the journal Cell Reports.

Giant Panda Eating.

Increasingly fragmented habitats may spell doom for the giant panda

Giant pandas are making a comeback — but their habitat is still taking a beating, satellite data reveals.

Giant Panda Eating.

Image credits Chen Wu.

Back in 1988 giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) weren’t in a great shape. In fact, they were struggling so much so that the species was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as endangered. Not somewhere you want to find yourself.

Luckily, since then things have been looking up for our furred friends. They’ve become the de-facto poster-species for conservation efforts and green living at large, and just last year, it was decided they’ve recovered enough that they can be safely be downgraded to ‘vulnerable’. But not all is well in Pandaland, an international team of researchers reports.

First off, there’s only about 1,800 of them roaming about in the wild, so extending reserves and establishing new ones is still critical to ensure the species’ survival. But more worryingly, the animals’ habitat is becoming a fragmented mosaic of what it once was.

Eye in the sky

“What’s new in this study is our ability to assess the status of the giant panda by using satellite imagery and then use that information to come up with recommendations of how better to manage this iconic threatened species,” said Prof Stuart Pimm, of Duke University, North Carolina, US, who is a researcher on the study.

Drawing on satellite imagery and remote sensing, the joint Chinese-US team assessed changes across the giant pandas’ range from 1976 to 2013. They report that suitable panda habitats have been substantially reduced over this period as a result of earthquakes and human encroachment from agriculture, building, tourism, and logging. The issue isn’t so much one of size — habitat area has decreased by almost 5% from 1976 to 2001, but has since been increasing, they explain. The real issue is habitat fragmentation, which limits a population’s access to food and water sources, and isolates groups and their gene pools from the species at large, promoting inbreeding. Average habitat-patch size was gone down 23% over the same period and has only “slightly” increased since.

“I think we now understand we’ve got to keep an eye on the habitats where pandas live,” said paper co-author Prof Pimm. “But it also points to the need to try and re-connect isolated panda habitats by building what we call biological corridors.”

Developments such as roads running through a habitat will effectively cleave it in two smaller pieces, isolating groups of animals from one another. Creating ways for them to communicate (such as road over- or under-passes, structures know as biological corridors) is essential to ensure the health of the overall species. Similarly, future developments should be designed “responsibly with the lowest possible environmental impact,” says WWF’s Head of Asian programmes, John Baker.

Today, pandas in the wild inhabit areas throughout six mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Apart from the issue of habitat fragmentation, the team reports that the regions are making some “encouraging” changes, such as slamming the breaks on logging and establishing nature reserves.

“But conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand,” says paper co-author Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University.

The paper “Reassessing the conservation status of the giant panda using remote sensing” has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

giant panda

Giant Panda no longer ‘endangered’ thanks to conservation efforts in China

giant panda

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Humans have pushed countless species to the brink of extinction and beyond, but we’re also capable of nurturing wildlife. Case in point, the Giant Panda — China’s national animal — has been delisted as ‘endangered’ from the  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List thanks to conservation efforts.

Giant Pandas rebound

Being so adorable, the Giant Panda has a superstar status in the animal kingdom. Yet, like lions or elephants, being a popular wildlife species doesn’t necessarily come with perks. Human expansion through deforestation, farming, and urbanization has made the forests pandas in China call home smaller and smaller, making food and mates harder to find.

Bamboo is a panda’s favorite treat, and when they’re awake they basically eat it all day. But even when a bamboo forest is spared, pandas still run into trouble if their habitat is encircled by farmland and settlements. Bamboo naturally dies off periodically, so pandas have to migrate to a nearby bamboo forest. This isn’t possible if the habitat is fragmented and many pandas die with the bamboo.

Besides habitat destruction, historically speaking, pandas have also been the target of poaching. Coupled with the fact that pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity (a female is only fertile 24 to 36 hours in a whole year), it’s not surprising to hear that pandas eventually became seriously endangered.

[ALSO SEE] Endangered species need to wait 12 years on average for federal protection, six times more than mandated

The Chinese government has learned, however, from its passed mistake and has taken its role as a steward of the Giant Pandas very seriously. There are special protected panda reserves, poachers face severe penalties and conservationists work around the clock during the brief mating season to breed captive pandas.

Now, the number of giant pandas is around 2,060, according to the most recent surveys, prompting the IUCN to re-schedule the giant panda as ‘vulnerable’.

“When push comes to shove, the Chinese have done a really good job with pandas,” John Robinson, a primatologist and chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the AFP.

“So few species are actually downlisted, it really is a reflection of the success of conservation,” he added.

Critics argue that we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Studies suggest climate change threatens to wipe out a third of the pandas’ bamboo habitat over the next 80 years. Moreover, today’s good news is offset by a parallel announcement from the IUCN which listed another iconic animal and the world’s largest primate, the eastern gorilla, as endangered. A mere 5,000 eastern gorillas are alive today following a surge in poaching, or 70 percent fewer than two decades ago. Today four out of the six great apes are now endangered:  the eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan.



The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Panda poop might help biofuel production take a turn for the better

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Biofuels are very ‘hot’ at the moment, as they’ve started to gain traction. Production as increased about 400% since 2000, and that’s a good thing. Right? After all, anything that can replace fossil fuels is a better option. Well, not necessarily. A while ago, I wrote a piece for ZME Science in which listed some of reason why biofuels aren’t that ‘green’ as most people would like to think. In short, unsustainable biofuel production can be hazardous to the environment creating deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and impact on water resources. People shouldn’t forget that biofuels produce greenhouse gas emissions as well, albeit not in the same degree as fossil hydrocarbons.

Another important downside to biofuel production is that an important chunk of them are made from food crops, affecting food supply. For instance, ethanol made from corn is the most common alternative fuel in the U.S. Engineers tried developing fuels from non-edible corn stalks, corn cobs, and other plant material not meant for food production, however these require special processing to breakdown their tough cellulose fibers. Typically this translates in an energy intensive process that requires high temperature and pressure. It’s simply not feasible. Not impossible, though.

Scientists at Mississippi State University, led by Ashli Brown, think they may have found a method to work-around the energy intensive process and derive biofuels from non-edible crops much easier. And they have two of Memphis Zoo’s giant pandas to thank: Ya Ya and Le Le. The secret lies in their super panda feces.

“The giant pandas are contributing their feces,” explained Ashli Brown, a biochemist at Mississippi State University who heads the research. “We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. It’s amazing that here we have an endangered species that’s almost gone from the planet, yet there’s still so much we have yet to learn from it.”

Pandas’ diet mainly consists of bamboo and their small intestinal tract is perfectly adapted to digest them. Since bamboo is similar to the tough cellulose fibers non-edible crops have been given scientists so much headaches, the Mississipi researchers were on to something. Closer inspection showed 40 microbes living in the guts of the giant pandas with unusually potent enzymes.

“The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo,” Brown notes. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

In addition to identifying bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, the researchers also found bacteria that can take those sugars and transform them into oils and fats – which could be used for biodiesel production. Brown said that either the bacteria themselves or the enzymes in the bacteria could be used in the production of biofuels.

“These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal’s digestive system and the microbes that live in it,” said Brown. “Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important… as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity.”

Next, the researchers have to work on a way to use these bacteria and enzymes themselves to produce biofuels in the lab.

via Nat Geographic

Giant panda in tree

The oldest giant panda relative found in Spain

Paleontologists have come across the oldest fossils identified as a relative of the giant panda in Spain, dated from 12 million years ago. A highly peculiar find since this unique animals is native to central-western and south western China.

Giant panda in tree

Holla, humans!

The giant panda belongs to the order Carnivora, which is rather ironic since its highly specialized diet consists of 99% bamboo. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived. Estimates have only 1,590 individuals living in the wild.

Juan Abella, at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain, and colleagues came across fossils from two specimens identified as a new species called Kretzoiarctos beatrix. One set consists of two teeth and the other a broken mandible and incomplete upper carnassial (large tooth), both however show the characteristics that allow modern pandas bear to successfully live on tough, fibrous plants like bamboo.

Previously the earliest panda relative was found in China and was considerably younger, dated as being 7 to 8 million years. These findings, however, aren’t enough to say that the giant panda developed in Spain and then migrated in China, like some might be quick to shout “missing link”. Some 12 million years ago, the climate in the region was a lot more humid and warm than it is today, meaning there were plenty of fruits and plants that enabled the ancient panda to incorporate more plants in its diet. Scientists aren’t too sure whether bamboo was present at the time, but other similar  fibrous plants associated with humid climate might have acted as a replacement.

“That fossil record is very fragmentary and so it is difficult to state 100% sure that one fossil species was the direct ancestor of an extant one,” Abella said.

Indeed, little is known about these ancient giant panda ancestors and it’s surprising enough the scientists were able to derive so much information from so little samples. Hopefully, more specimens might be uncovered, which might shed light on how they might look like or how big they were. A genetic sequence would definitely be interesting as well.

“The discovery is very important to understand the origin of the lineage that leads to the giant panda millions of years after,” Abella said. “It may also help scientists to understand the adaptations in both the skull and jaw, that helps, this unique bear, to be able to feed on hard bamboo stems.”

The fossils were described in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study suggests early man ate pandas

The cuddly giant pandas were good, tasty snacks for the early man, claims paleoanthropologist Wei Guangbiao.

The co-author of “Origins of Giant Pandas” and head of Chongqing Three Gorges Museum and Institute of Paleoanthropology claims prehistoric men who inhabited in the area of today’s Chongqing Municipality ate the pandas people are trying so hard to protect nowadays.


“We have studied many samples of the panda fossils excavated in Chongqing from the sites where humans once lived,” said Wei. “A large number of them showed that pandas were once slashed to death by man,” he was quoted as saying by state-run Xinhua new agency. “In the primitive time, man would not kill animals that were useless to them,” he said. But Wei said the pandas ancient man devoured were by no means “giant”.

As gruesome as it sounds and as cute as the pandas are, it made no real different for the ancient humans.

“They were much smaller than today’s giant pandas, just the size of the Tibetan mastiffs,” said Wei, adding the miniature creatures were the direct ancestors of the giant pandas we see today.

Giant Panda breeding breakthrough leads to wildlife re-introduction program

What’s maybe China’s most prominent symbol, the Giant Panda has been for decades now on the endangered species list, with an estimate wildlife population of circa. 2000-3000 individuals. Conservation efforts and breeding projects have been in the works for a very long time, efforts which even proved to render diplomatic benefits (In the late 70’s the People Republic of China loaned Pandas to American zoos, one of the first official cultural exchanges between the two countries), but only now scientists have managed to reach a breakthrough in breeding research which could finally very much lead to attempts to introduce Pandas to the wild.

In 1963 the first panda cub was born in captivity, and up to present date 300 adult giant pandas have been mated in captivity, time in which a perfect breeding was developed. This very important milestone, reached primarily by Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre, China, should lead to the re-introduction of the first panda in the wild within the next 15 years.

A lot of issues have been encountered by researchers during the very delicate breeding process, such as the very short breeding cycle of the giant panda – females go in heat only 72 hours a years, during which there’s only a 12 to 24 hour window when they can become pregnant. As such, a perfect knowledge of panda breeding, close supervision and daily urine samples were required. But this was only the tip of the iceberg of concerns that effected Chinese researchers. For example another issue they encountered was the pandas’ getting “turned off”! Apparently pandas weren’t too keen on getting it on when their whole habitat was comprised of 100 square feet, and even when they managed to get aroused mating partners were clumsy and didn’t know how get in the proper position, which is critical as a consequence of the male’s highly disproportionate small penis.

Intercourse? Heck, most of the time what was supposed to be a mating session turned into a brawl. As a last result, scientists turned to artificial insemination, but again because of the panda’s hectic reproductive cycle which causes pregnancies to last anytime between 11 weeks and 11 months and can remain undetected until shortly before birth, things became very complicated. Also, half of the female pandas give birth to twins but only care for one of them – in this case, a trick was employed by the Chengdu researchers, namely they cyclical swapping between cubs, one nursing, the other in the incubator, the female never telling the difference (the cub survival rate rose to 98% after this ingenious combination was implemented).

Hard work and most of all innovation finally fructified their efforts and with the goal of 300 captive pandas achieved, construction has started on the country’s first dedicated panda reintroduction facility. You can learn more about giant pandas and the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre during the broadcast of Panda Makers BBC TWO at 2000 GMT, Tuesday December 7th, a documentary two years in the making.

[via BBC]