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Giant Pandas Beat Meat-Eating Heritage with Specialized Microbes

Giant pandas don't digest bamboo by themselves. Microorganisms in their guts may help the endangered animals to subsist on plants despite a gut that is better suited to eating meat, finds an analysis published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are among the pickiest eaters in the animal world. In the wild, they eat more than 12 kilograms of bamboo each day--and little else.

They have to eat so much because, although bamboo contains proteins, sugars and fats among other nutrients, most of its calories are locked in hard-to-digest cellulose fibers that make up plant cell walls. A 1982 study of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC, found that 92% of the cellulose and 73% of the hemicellulose (a chemically similar fiber) in the bamboo they ate passed right through their digestive tracts and ended up in their feces.

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Article source: Nature - "Microbes help giant pandas overcome meat-eating heritage" (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111017/full/news.2011.596.html)

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