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More Dissimilar Than You'd Think, Given Their Common Name and Favorite Food

October 21, 2014

Story at-a-glance

  • Red and giant panda populations are threatened, and the leading natural cause of death for both wild and captive pandas is gastrointestinal disease.
  • Red and giant pandas are different species, but they share a number of characteristics, including a fondness for bamboo. A Mississippi State University research team set out to learn if there were similarities in the pandas’ gut bacteria necessary to digest their plant-based diet.
  • Using genetic sequencing techniques to evaluate fecal samples from both types of pandas, the researchers discovered that while they have some microbes in common, the dominant microbe for each species was different.
  • Studies of the GI bacteria of pandas will help conservation efforts in China, and it may also help preserve the health of both wild and captive panda populations.

By Dr. Becker

Pandas are among the world’s most threatened animals. The red panda is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List;1 the giant panda is listed as endangered.2

Gastrointestinal disease is a primary cause of death in both wild and captive pandas, but scientists don’t know much about their digestive process. Recently, a research team led by a Mississippi State University doctoral student in biochemistry, and including experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Memphis Zoo, and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., discovered that giant and red pandas have different digestive microbes.

The red panda and giant panda are different species, but they have several characteristics in common, including that both eat a diet of mostly bamboo. The MSU research team set out to discover if there were similarities in the microbes that digest this type of fibrous, plant-based diet.

Tests Reveal Major Differences in Red and Giant Panda Gut Bacteria

The researchers collected poop samples from three residents of the Memphis Zoo: two giant pandas and a red panda. They also received samples from a second red panda at the National Zoo. High-tech genetic sequencing procedures were used to determine what types of GI bacteria were present in the samples.

Genetic sequencing revealed all microbes present, including some the researchers could not identify.

Feces from both the red and giant pandas were loaded with plant material, which hampered the researchers’ ability to identify microbes. However, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student devised a way to remove the plant material, which then allowed the digestive bacteria to be definitively identified.

The results of the fecal sample testing revealed major differences in the microbes found in the digestive tracts of the giant and red pandas. They had some bacteria in common, but their dominant microbe was different.

Understanding Panda Digestion Can Help Preserve Both Wild and Captive Populations

Studies of the GI bacteria of pandas will help China’s reforestation efforts in the mountainous regions that pandas inhabit. The Chinese government has developed 50 panda reserves within the animals’ home range, and has also banned logging to preserve habitats.

Because gastrointestinal disease is the leading natural cause of death in red and giant pandas, a greater understanding of the animals’ digestive bacteria should also help maintain the health of captive panda populations.

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Sources and References

  • 1 IUCN Red List (Ailurus fulgens)
  • 2 IUCN Red List (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
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