Giant pandas serve as one of China’s national treasures. They are a symbol of endangered wild animals, and even one of the more unique species. They have carnivore-like teeth, but consume bamboo. Why? It might be a mystery culminated from millions of years that panda fans are waiting to be answered.
On February 1, 2018, Zhang Wenping, a researcher at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (hereinafter referred to as the “Chengdu Giant Panda Base”), published his paper titled the Age-associated Microbiome Shows the Giant Panda Lives on Hemicelluloses, Not Cellulose detailing his the results of his research in The ISME Journal (The Journal of the International Society for Microbial Ecology), a global first-class academic journal. With an impact factor of 9.664 in 2016, The ISME Journal is considered a flagship journal in the international micro-ecology field. This paper revealed the mystery behind why giant pandas eat bamboo.
By analyzing the excrement of giant pandas, researchers with the Chengdu Giant Panda Base found that the gut microbiota of giant pandas is virtually unable to digest the fibers found in bamboo. This shows that giant pandas do not rely on cellulose for energy. Instead, they live on starch, hemicelluloses, and pectin for energy.
The research paper published online in The ISME Journal on February 1, 2018 discovered the science behind why giant pandas primarily eat bamboo. Firstly, compared with other foodstuffs in the wild, bamboo is found throughout the giant panda’s habitat and readily available, attracting few rivals for the giant pandas to contend with. Secondly, compared with other woody plants, bamboo contains a higher concentration of starch. Thirdly, the content of the starch in bamboo varies with seasonal changes, and giant pandas always eat the parts with the most concentrated starch content. Bamboo shoots are the part with the highest concentration of starch and hemicelluloses. It also grows fast, and produces shoots two seasons out of the year. Bamboo shoots are produced in the season when giant pandas are in heat and give birth to cubs. In these two seasons, giant pandas prefer shoots. The high content of starch and hemicelluloses in bamboo can supplement their energy needs and facilitate the weight gain they require to maintain their fertility and give birth to cubs. However, there are no shoots or tender leaves in winter, but the starch content and soluble sugar in culm reach the highest point during the year. Then, giant pandas begin to eat culms.
Serving as a worldwide first-class academic journal, The ISME Journal receives about 1500 papers, and publishes about 200 papers annually, with an acceptance rate less than 14%. Most contributions are rejected after resubmitted. The research paper dominated by the Chengdu Giant Panda Base has been lauded among the international academic community for publication. It is a program jointly accomplished in its cooperation with Novogene, Iowa State University, USA; Sichuan University; the Chengdu Biogas Institute; and other institutions. The research has been subsidized by the National Key Technology R&D Program, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation Program, the Application Foundation Program of the Science & Technology Department of Sichuan Province, as well as independent programs of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Since the founding of Chengdu Giant Panda Base, thanks to the constant innovations in scientific research, the Base has grasped world-leading core breeding technologies for giant pandas, fully overcoming the challenges in artificial feeding and management of giant pandas, disease control, and population genetic management thanks to key technologies. It has removed many technological bottlenecks in giant panda ex situ conservation, including artificial cub feeding for giant panda twins, artificial breeding, prevention and treatment of hemorrhagic enteritis, as well as paternity testing. The Base has won more than 70 Technological Invention Awards and Science and Technology Progress Awards at the national, provincial, and municipal levels; published over 400 academic research papers on globally recognized journals; achieved a total of 14 national invention patents and utility model patents; and published 8 monographs in succession. It is unanimously recognized and praised by academic experts around the world.