Tag Archives: 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.

While we quarantine, some animals take to the streets, some get lonely, and a panda may get pregnant

As we keep to our homes more and more, wildlife is coming into the city to explore. Luckily for us, there’s always a camera nearby to capture such moments for “d’awws” and “aawws” on social media.

But not all animals are enjoying themselves equally. With zoos shutting their gates to the public, and amid growing concern that staff could unwittingly infect them, some zoo animals are starting to miss getting attention — but they’re also getting busy.

The goats of Llandudno

Wild goats roaming through Llandudno in North Wales by Andrew Stuart, a video producer at Manchester Evening News.
Image via Medium.

“Llandudno has a herd of wild goats, which date back to the 1800s. They do like to come down the hillside, as seen many, many times previously — and documented extensively by my colleagues at North Wales Live and the Daily Post,” Stuart explained for Medium.

“They are still wary of people and human life. Normally, they are put off going much further than the bottom of the Great Orme because of how busy it is (in relative terms — this is still Llandudno after all, and not inner-city Manchester). However, thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown, the goats didn’t have any traffic, people or noise stopping them — so they ventured out.”

The goats do seem to enjoy themselves, as they chew through local shrubbery and gardens, sunbathe in a churchyard, and even “blocked traffic”. However, they are still wary of coming close to humans.

This sleepy fox somewhere in Canada

Image credits SaraReneeRyan / Twitter.

Sara, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Texas Tech, Tweeted that her dad who lives somewhere in Canada “had been sending me and my sister updates [on the fox] all day” and has even named it Nezuko.

It’s not hard to see why.

Foxes are one of the more often-spotted animals in this period, from what I’ve seen so far. There’s a lot of fox photos to enjoy in the replies to Sara’s tweet if that’s your thing (it definitely is mine).

A chill coyote

A coyote spotted in San Francisco.
Image credits beccatravels / Reddit (Becca Cook).

San Francisco is no stranger to coyotes. They live in the woods near the Bay Area and are generally content to stay away from people or ignore them if they meet. This one, however, looks very pleased that the normal hustle and bustle of the city has been curtailed in order do get some peace and quiet with a view.

But while this coyote is enjoying itself, others are hard at work resolving local politics.

“We had coup d’etat if you will,” Presidio Wildlife Ecologist Jonathan Young told ABC News about a fight that broke out in between the animals a few days ago. “A new alpha pair came and took over and kicked out the old alpha pair.”

“Since the COVID shelter-in-place, the winding trails and idle golf course [around the city’s Presidio] have become a go-to refuge for neighbors and more importantly their dogs. For the next few weeks or months, that’s potential trouble.”

The Presidio Trust cautions people that coyotes aren’t typically aggressive, but will regularly be on the hunt or defend themselves from domestic pets. It’s also a pupping season currently, so people would best try to avoid these animals. Sections of the Park Trail and the Bay Area Ridge Trail will be closed to hounds starting April 6 for the next few weeks or months over concerns about safety.

What’s happening in the zoos

We’ve just had our first confirmed case of the coronavirus jumping from a human to a tiger, and zoo staff are understandably worried that they may unwittingly infect their charges. As such, zoos around the world are implementing measures to limit the risk by reducing the animal’s exposure with their handlers and the public.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since reiterated that there is no evidence yet that pets can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the US, but zoos and conservation centers are still being especially careful. For example, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Borneo, closed its doors to all visitors and asked the caretakers to wear masks and protective gloves when working with the primates, which are burned after the working day is over.

Grosser Panda.JPG
A giant panda at Ocean Park, Hongkong.
Image credits J. Patrick Fischer,

Nathan Hawke from Orana wildlife park in New Zealand told The Guardian that although visitors are no longer permitted, many of the park’s animals continue to come for their daily ‘meet the public’ appointments. Other groups of animals that are accustomed to human presence also seem to miss us, too, although the feeling may be forming through their stomach more than through their hearts.

Privacy, perhaps, was just what some of these species had been missing, however. Staff at the Ocean Park in Hong Kong reported that the 14-year-old resident female and male giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le have “succeeded in natural mating” two days ago — because there aren’t any rules on panda social distancing.

This is the first success since attempts at natural mating began a decade ago, and the staff is excited for the birth, as the species is currently considered vulnerable in the wild but attempts to breed more giant pandas in captivity have been remarkably frustrating.

Lockdown spurs pandas to finally mate after a decade

One of the serious problems that pandas have is that they rarely mate. But quarantine and isolation, which has millions of people longing for physical contact again, seems to have had an effect on them, proving love can arise in times of a pandemic.

Credit Ocean Park

Ying Ying and Le Le are two giant pandas from Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. Zoo employees have been trying to make them mate for a decade, as the species is in danger of extinction, to no avail. But it seems that all they needed was a little privacy, which the lack of visitors to the zoo due to the coronavirus outbreak has helped secure.

Even in captivity, breeding pandas is notoriously difficult. They are extremely selective about choosing their mates, which means that even if a male and female panda are kept in the same enclosure for years, there is no guarantee the pair will mate.

“Ying Ying and Le Le arrived in Hong Kong in 2007 and there have been attempts at natural mating since 2010. Nevertheless, they have not been successful until this year, after a long time of testing and learning,” said Michael Boos, CEO of operation and zoological conservation.

In late March, after more than a month of unusual privacy, Ying Ying began spending more time in the water. Meanwhile, Le Le began leaving a trail of scents around his habitat, actively searching for his companion’s smell all the while. On Monday the two were seen cuddling.

The Ocean Park has not received visitors since January because of the pandemic, and these moments of intimacy coincided with the breeding season that occurs every year between March and May. Female pandas enter heat for one to three days, and that’s the only window in which the male panda can act.

“The successful natural mating process today is extremely exciting for all of us, as the chance of pregnancy via natural mating is higher than by artificial insemination,” Boos said. “We hope to bear wonderful pregnancy news to Hong Kongers this year and make further contributions to the conservation of this vulnerable species.”

The fact that they have mated does not mean that Ying Ying is going to get pregnant, but if so, they would begin to notice changes at a hormonal and behavioral level in early June. For now, we will have to wait to see if this pandemic has had its positive side for these giant pandas.

The number of pandas is slowly increasing around the world. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) removed giant pandas from the “endangered” category due to a 17% increase in the number of pandas between 2004 and 2014.

Nevertheless, they still face many challenges. Deforestation has led to permanent habitat loss in some areas. Wild pandas used to live in bamboo forests in China, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Today, wild pandas are found only in China, and in far fewer numbers than ever before.

Marsupial giant pandas roamed Australia during the Ice Age

Australia’s extinct short-faced kangaroos were more like marsupial giant pandas, new research reports.

Skull of related species Simosthenurus gilli at the Melbourne Museum.

The animals were massively thickset, with the largest species weighing more than 220 kg and had large heads shaped like a koala’s. Their jaws were also adapted to local vegetation, which was predominantly woody and relatively poor-quality in Ice Age Australia.

Ancient panda

“The skull of the extinct kangaroo studied here differs from those of today’s kangaroos in many of the ways a giant panda’s skull differs from other bears,” says Dr. Rex Mitchell, a researcher with Australia’s University of New England (UNE) and the University of Arkansas and the sole author of the paper.

“It makes sense that the strange skull of this kangaroo was, functionally speaking, less like a modern-day kangaroo’s and more like a giant panda’s.”

The study finds that the skull of one species of these extinct kangaroos was tailored for crushing of food, which would make it useful for animals trying to make ends meet in low-productivity landscapes (as it allows them to eat basically any plant matter). Adaptations for this role include “enormous cheekbones and wide foreheads”, Dr. Mitchell explains, as well as an overall increase in the skull’s size.

He also explains that what we’re seeing isn’t a fluke of biology, but a deliberate change. It would take a lot of energy and nutrients to grow and maintain that bone, so “it follows that it wouldn’t have evolved unless [the kangaroos] really needed it to bite hard into at least some more resistant foods that were important in their diets.”

For the study, Dr. Mitchell created three-dimensional models from scans of a well-represented species of short-faced kangaroo, Simosthenurus occidentalis. This species is estimated to have lived up to 42,000 years ago and grow up to 120 kg in adulthood. Using the models, Mitchell examined the biomechanical performance of the skull’s bites and compared them to koalas, which have a similar skull shape.

Based on the skulls’ structure, Dr. Mitchell estimates that the short-faced kangaroo was much more vulnerable to injury than today’s koalas when biting with their back teeth. However, he also says that this risk would be greatly reduced if a muscle located on the inner surface of the kangaroo’s cheekbones was enlarged. That feature — the enlarged muscle — is seen on the giant panda, who feeds on thick and resilient bamboo.

The short-faced kangaroo model could also withstand twisting of the skull much more effectively than that of a koala during hard biting on one side of the mouth. This supports the view that the toughest vegetation it could eat — such as the woody twigs and branches of trees and shrubs — may have been fed directly to its premolars and molars to be crushed or otherwise broken apart (similar to how giant pandas chew bamboo).

“The skull of the extinct kangaroo studied here differs from those of today’s kangaroos in many of the ways a giant panda’s skull differs from other bears,” says Dr. Mitchell. “It makes sense that the strange skull of this kangaroo was, functionally speaking, less like a modern-day kangaroo’s and more like a giant panda’s.”

The paper “The anatomy of a crushing bite: the specialised cranial mechanics of a giant extinct kangaroo” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Why pandas have dark and white patches: camouflage and communication

Credit: Pixabay

Besides making them cute as a button, the dark and white patches on the Giant Panda’s fur actually serve an evolutionary function. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Long Beach, the patches help the pandas camouflage across all seasons since they don’t hibernate. The dark patches around the eyes are actually distinct on an individual basis and aid in communication.

“Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult,” said lead researcher Dr.Tim Karo From University of California, Davis.

Life in black and white

Black and white marking aren’t at all common but you can still find them in some species of zebras, snakes, fish, cows or, of course, penguins. In each animal, these markings serve a different purpose or rarely overlap. For instance, the zebra selected black and white stripes to confuse mosquitoes and avoid being bitten as often. For birds, the markings typically aid in mating. Killer whales have a black back with white chest and sides which help the animal in predation by making it difficult for other species to spot it. The California kingsnake mainly comes in shades of black with white markings, giving it an eye-catching coloration which wards off predators who think it’s poisonous (it’s not).

Panda colouring has always been difficult to pin down, though. For one, it’s the only bear in its family that has such a distinct pattern.

Their Kung Fu was good

To get to the bottom of things, the researchers got creative. During their investigations, they treated each part of the panda’s body as an independent area and compared the lighter and dark tones of these different regions with those from 195 carnivore species and 39 related bear species. One by one, they determined the function of each area always keeping in mind the various ecological and behavioral cues.

This analysis suggests the panda’s face, neck, belly, and rump are white to provide protection against predators during the winter while the dark arm and legs hide it in the shade, as reported in Behavioral Ecology

You might find this sort of camouflage rather weird or even inadequate but given current circumstances, this seems the best the panda could come up with. What I mean by that is the panda eats around 30 to 40 pounds of bamboo and poops three dozen times each day. Ain’t nobody got time for hibernation. Brown or black bears hibernate during the winter when it snows but once the slumber is over, its fur blends great with the forest and vegetation. Like pandas, polar bears don’t hibernate either but they basically live in a white hell so their fur’s coloring can be easily explained. The panada’s habitat spans many seasonal changes, though.

“This really was a Herculean effort by our team, finding and scoring thousands of images and scoring more than 10 areas per picture from over 20 possible colors,” said co-author Ted Stankowich, a professor from California State University, Long Beach. “Sometimes, it takes hundreds of hours of hard work to answer what seems like the simplest of questions: why is the panda black and white?”

The cute dark patches on the head and around the eyes, however, are not meant for camouflage. It’s likely that the black spots around the eyes and ears help make the panda look more intimidating to a competitor, no matter how preposterous that may sound. The dark eye patches may also serve for individual recognition.

Previously, scientists used to think the bear’s colouring was due to some degree of relatedness with raccoons but a DNA analysis debunked this claim. Previous hypotheses also suggested the panda’s dark patches around the eyes acted like sunglasses to protect the eyes. But there is “no compelling support for their fur color being involved in temperature regulation, disrupting the animal’s outline, or in reducing eye glare,” the researchers wrote.



Panda poo shows they shouldn’t munch on bamboo so much

Giant pandas love to feast on bamboo – it’s their favorite food, and they usually make quick work of it, using their powerful jaws to peel the plant’s tough bark and get to the tender core. But even though the pandas love it, their stomachs don’t – a new study has revealed that the panda’s stomach is not adapted to a completely herbivorous diet, and still craves for an omnivorous meal, like other bears.

With them being so fluffy and lazy, it’s easy to forget that panda bears are… well, bears. But bears eat both plants and other animals – they have what is called an omnivorous diet – while pandas only eat plants (mostly bamboo). However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo – which is why it can spend up to 14 hours a day eating bamboo.

A team of researchers in China wanted to see just how well the panda’s stomach gets along with its food, so they took 121 fecal samples from 45 giant pandas — 24 adults, 16 juveniles and five cubs. They then compared the results with those from a previous study on wild pandas. Both studies showed the fact that pandas don’t have plant-degrading in bacteria, and draw very little energy from bamboo.

“This result is unexpected and quite interesting, because it implies the giant panda’s gut microbiota may not have well adapted to its unique diet, and places pandas at an evolutionary dilemma,” said Xiaoyan Pang, a co-author of the study in a press release.

It seems like evolution only went half way – the pandas developed powerful jaws and teeth specifically for eating plants, but they don’t have the digestive system to work with. So the only solution that was left for them was to have bacteria that help it break down the bamboo. The authors write:

“The giant panda appears to have no alternative but to rely on symbiotic gut microbes to adapt to its highly fibrous diet.”

So that’s what the researchers were expecting to find, except they didn’t. Furthermore, the bacterial diversity in the panda’s stomachs was extremely low, compared to other mammals. A high gut bacteria diversity is associated with resilience and adaptation capability, so this means that the panda is highly vulnerable and can’t really adapt to new environments and new diets.

But the biggest surprise was the fact that the dominating bacteria population was represented by Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus – something you’d expect to see in meat eaters, not vegetarians. Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroidetes bacteria, generally associated with degrading fiber, were missing.

So why is it then that pandas eat plants? Why did their transformation from omnivorous to plant-eating bear stop half way?

We still don’t know yet, but one thing’s for sure: pandas are passing through an evolutionary stage where they are extremely vulnerable. They can’t adapt to new environment, they can’t properly digest the food they eat, and so they have to spend most of their time eating and not spend much energy. In other words, pandas might just be eating their way to extinction.

Pandas scared after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – warning: extreme cuteness alert

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was absolutely brutal: at a magnitude of 8, and coming in a totally unexpected area, it struck hard. But humans weren’t the only ones affected by it – and they weren’t the only ones scared by it.

The Wolong National Nature Reserve, home to around 280 giant pandas was struck hard by the earthquake as well. As soon as the population recovered from the initial shock, and did what could be done for humans in the area, it was time to take care of the panda.

Three pandas were unaccounted for initially, but many were injured. But as it turned out, emotional scars were much deeper. As you can see, volunteers had to practically carry the pandas into the shelter.

Sadly, only two of them were found living. For the cubs however, a new battle began.

What was noticed was that pandas, especially cubs, always remained in groups after the earthquake. They were just so afraid, they wanted to stick together…

…even when they were having their milk.

This one was trying to find a safe, stable place.

No, please! I don’t want a shot :(

This following pictures don’t need any commentaries – just incredibly cute pandas being taken care of – it’s hard for me not to hug the screen.


New Year brings a miniature breed of cows, the Panda cow

This New Year brought more joy than usual for a Colorado family, as Chris and Pam Jessen were thrilled by the birth of an extremely rare type of cow in their farm: the panda cow. The panda cow is an uncommon cross breed that was worked on for 44 years by Richard Gradwohl, a Covington, Wash., farmer, using eight different breeds of miniatuare cows and mixing them with a lot of patience and ambition. Thus, thanks to his work, Ben was able to come to the world in Chris’ farm, that also houses other miniature cattle as well as a miniature kangaroo.

Ben is one of just 25 panda cows in the whole world, but one can only wonder what can these animals do, aside from being cute and cuddly ? Well, the answer is ‘nothing’; but they are really cute and cuddly.

“Miniatures range from about 44 inches tall on their tail side, on their hocks, but he can get up to 1000 pounds though — so a pretty good-sized animal,” Chris Jessen told “Good Morning America.”

Panda cows are estimated at 25.000$ and the Jensens say they eventually plan on selling Ben, who had a really funny episode on GMA.

“Probably the most amazing thing aside from the fact that he’s rar is that he’s on the couch right now. Suddenly my lap is starting to get very warm! I don’t think he’s gonna be on the couch after this again!” Chris Jessen said.