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The ancient pandas were not exclusive bamboos, argue the evidence

The Wild Giant Panda in Foping Nature Reserve feeds on bamboo. Credits: Fuwen Wei

The giant pandas we know and love today live only in the burial of some mountains in southwestern China, where they live only from bamboo. In addition to their solid and fibrous diet of bamboo, they have characteristic teeth, skull and muscle characteristics along with a special pseudo-thumb, which is better to catch and hold bamboo stems, leaves and shoots. But according to new evidence from Current Biology On January 31 extinct ancient panda species were most likely to have a more diverse and more complex diet.

"It is generally accepted that giant pandas are exclusively fed bamboo in the last two million years," says Fuwen Wei from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But, "our results showed the opposite."

It is impossible to know exactly what extinct animals have been eating. But researchers can get traces by analyzing stable isotope composition (different forms of the same element that contain the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons) in animal teeth, hair and bones, including fossil remains. In the new study, researchers first analyzed bone collagen of modern pandas (1970s and 2000s) and other mammals from the same mountains.

Stable isotope composition of carbon and nitrogen from modern pandas and other modern bones of mammals has pointed to three obvious groups: carnivores, herbivores and giant pandas. Huge pandas were clearly unique because of their habit of eating bamboo. Then, Wei's team measured the isotope of bone collagen 12 ancient pandas collected from seven archaeological finds in southern and southwest China and compared them to the patterns they have seen in modern giant pandas.

Comparison of data showed that ancient and modern pande is isotopically different, suggesting differences in their eating habits. There were also more variations among the ancient panda types, suggesting that the niche they occupied was three times wider than the modern pandas. That is, ancient pandas were most likely to have a varied diet similar to that of other mammals living alongside them. They are, say scientists, "probably not exclusive bamboo feeders."

Researchers suggest that pande eating habits evolved into two phases. First, the pandas have crossed the meats or winters and became the intended crops. Only later did they specialize in bamboo.

Researchers say they would now like to find out when exactly pande switches to a specialized diet they have today. To find out, they plan to collect and study more pandas from different historical times over the last 5,000 years.

Explore further:
Separated from dinosaurs, lemons that eat bamboo, pears share common intestinal germs

More information:
Current Biology, Han et al., "Evolution of Nutrition and Contraction of Giant Pandemic Habitat by Stable Isotopic Analysis", DOI: 10.1016 / j. cub.2018.12.051

Journal reference:
Current Biology

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