Over the course of more than a year, the scientists analyzed feces samples from 45 specimens of all ages that live in captivity.
The experts compared the strands of RNA taken from the feces with samples from other animal species, including omnivores, carnivores and herbivores.
According to the study, giant pandas have special bacteria in their gut that is designed to digest a meat diet.
The findings surprised the researchers since it is a known fact that pandas are in fact herbivore animals.
The study revealed that the gut bacteria known as microbiome in pandas do not have the genetic diversity usually seen in animals that eat a vegetarian diet.
Scientists found that microorganisms that live inside pandas’ digestive system, such as Shigella, Escherichia and Streptococcus, are actually similar to the ones that live inside carnivorous species of bears.
Also, the research suggests that giant pandas don’t have the necessary bacteria needed for a proper digestion of cellulose.
Giant pandas, known as Ailuropoda melanoleuca, are native to China and are an endangered species.
Biologists say that these black-and-white bears used to be omnivores but switched to a bamboo diet approximately 7 million years ago.
More than 2 million years ago, bamboo became the giant panda’s primary food source.
The pandas eventually evolved into having a pseudo thumb and very powerful jaws in order to be able to harvest and chew the tough bamboo.
However, the recent study shows that the panda bear don’t have the necessary enzymes to properly digest the vegetative material, but instead they have short digestive tracks that are characteristic for animals that are carnivorous.
Biologists do not know for sure what made the giant pandas to change their diet millions of years ago.
Genetic evidence shows that pandas have also lost their ability to taste umami, which is the flavor associated with meat.
The study examined what type of bacteria live in pandas’ guts but did not analyze what role these bacteria play in the animals’ digestive track.
Some researchers believe that these microorganisms have evolved in order to help with the production of special enzymes responsible for making cellulose digestion more efficient.
The recent study on the digestive system of the giant pandas was published in the journal mBio by the American Society for Microbiology.
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