The giant panda is herbivore but has the gut microbiota of a carnivore

September 30th, 2015

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally Greek for “white and black cat feet”) is one of the most intriguing evolutionary mammal species. Despite its exclusively herbivorous diet, phylogenetically it is like a bear because it belongs to Ursids family, order Carnivores. Its diet is 99% bamboo and the other 1% is honey, eggs, fish, oranges, bananas, yams and leaves of shrubs.

It lives in a mountain area in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, and also in provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Due to the construction of farms, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland where he lived. It is an endangered species that needs protection. There are about 300 individuals in captivity and 3000 in freedom. Although the numbers are increasing, it is still endangered, particularly due to its limited space (20,000 km2) and its very specific habitat (bamboo forests).

Fig0 panda bamboo

Thus, the giant panda has an almost exclusive diet of different species of bamboo, mainly the very fibrous leaves and stems, and buds in spring and summer. It is therefore a poor quality -digestive diet, with little protein and plenty of fibre and lignin content. They spend about 14 hours a day eating and can ingest about 12 kg of bamboo a day.

Most herbivores have modifications of the digestive tract that help them to retain the food in digestion process and contain microbial populations that allow them to eat exclusively plant materials, rich in complex polysaccharides such as cellulose and hemicellulose. These specializations may be compartmentalization of the stomach of ruminants and other typical non-ruminants (kangaroos, hamster, hippopotamus and some primates) or enlargement of the large intestine, characteristic of equines, some rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares).

However, despite his exclusively herbivorous diet, surprisingly the giant panda has a typical carnivorous gastrointestinal tract, anatomically similar to dog, cat or raccoon, with a simple stomach, a degenerated caecum and a very short colon. The gastrointestinal tract of pandas is about 4 times the size of the body, such as other carnivores, whereas herbivores have about 10-20 times the size of the body, to efficiently digest large amounts of forage. With this, the panda intestinal transit time is very short, less than 12 hours. This severely limits the ability of potential fermentation of plant materials (Williams et al. 2013).

For these reasons, the digestion of bamboo for panda is very inefficient, despite their dependency. Pandas consume the equivalent of 6% of their body weight per day, with a 20% digestibility of dry matter of bamboo. Of this, 10% corresponds to the low protein content of bamboo, and the rest are polysaccharides, particularly with coefficients of digestion of 27% for hemicellulose and 8% for the pulp.

It seems as if the giant panda would have specialized in the use of a plant with high fibre content without having modified the digestive system, by means of an efficient chewing, swallowing large quantities, digesting the contents of cells instead of plant cell walls, and quickly excreting undigested waste (Dierenfield et al. 1982).

In addition, having a dependency on one type of plant such as bamboo can lead to nutritional deficiencies depending on seasonal cycles of the plant. In this regard, recently Nie et al. (2015) have studied the concentrations of calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen from different parts of the bamboo that a population of free pandas eat. They have seen that pandas in their habitat have a seasonal migration in two areas of different altitudes throughout the year and that fed two different species of bamboo. Both species have more calcium in the leaves and more phosphorus and nitrogen in the stems. As the seasonal variation in appearance and fall of leaves of two species is different due to the different altitude, when pandas are in one of the areas eat the leaves of a species and stems of the other while they do the reverse when they are in the other zone. So, pandas synchronize their seasonal migrations in order to get nutritionally the most out of both species of bamboo.

Another drawback of the bamboo dependence is flowering. It is a natural phenomenon that happens every 40-100 years, and when bamboo flowers, it dies, reducing the availability of food for pandas. During 1970-1980 there were two large-scale blooms in the habitat of pandas, and there were more than 200 deaths for this reason. However, and given that probably pandas have found during their evolution with many other massive blooms, in these occasions they are looking for other species of bamboo or travel long distances to meet their food needs (Wei et al. 2015).

In return, and as adaptation to eat this so specific food, the giant panda has a number of unique morphological features, such as strong jaws and very powerful molars, and especially a pseudo-thumb, like a 6th finger, which is actually a modified enlarged sesamoid bone, as an opposable thumb, which serves to hold bamboo while eating (Figure 1).

Fig1 panda's thumb

Figure 1. The “pseudo-thumb” of giant panda. Image from Herron & Freeman (2014).

And how is that the panda became an herbivore ?

It has been estimated that the precursor of the giant panda, omnivorous as other Ursids, began to eat bamboo at least 7 million years ago (My), and became completely dependent on bamboo between 2 and 2.4 My. This dietary change was probably linked to mutations in the genome, leading to defects in the metabolism of dopamine in relation to the appetite for meat, and especially the pseudogenization of Tas1r1 gene (Figure 2) of umami taste receptor (Jin et al. 2011). The umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami is like “pleasant savoury taste”, usually recalls meat, and is related to L-glutamic acid, abundant in meat. This mutation in pandas favoured the loss of appetite for meat and reinforced their herbivore lifestyle. However, other additional factors had probably been involved, since Tas1r1 gene is intact in herbivores such as horses and cows (Zhao et al. 2010).

Fig2 Zhao F1 large

Figure 2. Phylogenetic tree of some carnivores with data for giant panda deduced from fossils (in blue) and from the molecular study of TasTr1 gene made by Zhao et al. (2010).

The intestinal microbiota of giant panda

As expected, when sequencing the complete genome of the giant panda (Li et al. 2010), specific genes responsible for the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose have not been found. Logically, these complex polysaccharides of bamboo fibres would be possibly digested by cellulolytic microorganisms of the intestinal tract. So, their presence in panda must be studied.

When studying the sequences of 16S ribosomal DNA from faecal microbiota of various mammals, an increase in bacterial diversity is generally observed in sense carnivores – omnivores – herbivores (Ley et al. 2008). This diversity is lower in the panda than in herbivores, and as shown in Figure 3, pandas are grouped with carnivores (red circles) despite being herbivorous from the diet point of view.

Fig3 Ley

Figure 3. Principal component analysis (PC) of faecal bacterial communities from mammals with different colours according to the predominant diet (Law et al. 2008)

The intestinal microbiota of most herbivores contains anaerobic bacteria mainly from groups of Bacteroides, Clostridials, Spirochetes and Fibrobacterials, that have enzymatic ability to degrade fibrous plant material and thus provide nutrients for its guests. Instead, omnivores and carnivores have a particularly dominant microbiota of facultative anaerobes, such as Enterobacteriaceae, besides some Firmicutes, including lactobacilli and some Clostridials and Bacteroides.

As for the giant panda, the first studies made with culture-dependent methods and analysis of amplified 16S rRNA genes (Wii et al. 2007) identified Enterobacteriaceae and Streptococcus as predominant in the intestinal microbiota. Therefore, this study suggests that the microbiota of panda is very similar to that of carnivores, as we see in the mentioned comparative study with various mammals (Law et al. 2008), and therefore with little ability to use cellulose or hemicellulose.

However, a later study done with sequencing techniques of 16S (Zhu et al. 2011) from faecal samples of 15 giant pandas arrived at very different conclusions and it seemed that they found the first evidence of cellulose digestion by microbiota of giant panda. In 5500 sequences analysed, they found 85 different taxa, of which 83% were Firmicutes (Figure 4), and among these there were 13 taxa of Clostridium (7 of them exclusive of pandas) and some of these with ability to digest cellulose. In addition, in metagenomic analysis of some of the pandas some putative genes for enzymes to digest cellulose, xylans and beta-glucosidase-1,4-beta-xilosidase for these Clostridium were found. Altogether, they concluded that the microbiota of the giant panda had a moderate degradation capacity of cellulose materials.

Fig4 Zhu 2011-Fig1C

Figure 4. Percentage of sequences of the main bacterial groups found in faecal samples from wild individuals of giant panda (W1-W7) and captive (C1-C8), according to Zhu et al. (2011). Under each individual the n. sequences analysed is indicated.

But just three months ago a work (Xue et al. 2015) has been published that seems to go back, concluding that the intestinal microbiota of the giant panda is very similar to that of carnivores and have little of herbivores. It is an exhaustive study of last-generation massive sequencing of 16S rRNA genes of faecal samples from 121 pandas of different ages over three seasons. They obtained some 93000 sequences corresponding to 781 different taxa.

They found a predominance of Enterobacteriaceae and Streptococcus (dark red and dark blue respectively, Figure 5A) and very few representatives of probable cellulolitics as Clostridials. Moreover, these are not increased when more leaves and stems of bamboo are available (stage T3). These results correspond with what was already known of the low number of genes of cellulases and hemicellulases (2%), even lower than in the human microbiome. This negligible contribution of microbial digestion of cellulose, together with the commented fact that the panda is quite inefficient digesting bamboo, contradicts the hypothetical importance of digestion by the microbiota that had suggested a few years earlier, as we have seen before.

In addition, in this work a lot of variety in composition of microbiota between individuals has been found (Figure 5 B).

Fig5 Xue F1 large

Figure 5. Composition of the intestinal microbiota from 121 giant pandas, with (A) the dominant genera in all samples and (B) the relative contribution of each individual dominant genera, grouped by age and sampling time (Xue et al. 2015).

In this paper, a comparative analysis between the compositions of the intestinal microbiota of giant panda with other mammals has been made, and it has confirmed that the panda is grouped again with carnivores and is away from herbivores (Figure 6).

Fig6 Xue Fig4

Figure 6. Principal component analysis (PCoA) of microbiota communities from faecal samples of 121 giant pandas (blank forms), compared with other herbivores (green), omnivores (blue) and carnivores (red). The different forms correspond to different works: the circles are from Xue et al. (2015), where this Figure has been obtained.

All in all, the peculiar characteristics of the giant panda microbiota contribute to the extinction danger of this animal. Unlike most other mammals that have evolved their microbiota and digestive anatomies optimizing them for their specific diets, the aberrant coevolution of panda, its microbiota and its particular diet is quite enigmatic. To clarify it and know how to preserve this threatened animal, studies must be continued, combining metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, metaproteomics and meta-metabolomics, in order to know well the structure and metabolism of gut microbiota and its relationship with digestive functions and the nutritional status of the giant panda (Xue et al. 2015).


Dierenfield ES, Hintz HF, Robertson JB, Van Soest PJ, Oftedal OT (1982) Utilization of bamboo by the giant panda. J Nutr 112, 636-641

Herron JC, Freeman S (2014) Evolutionary Analysis, 5th ed. Benjamin Cummings

Jin K, Xue C, Wu X, Qian J, Zhu Y et al. (2011) Why Does the Giant Panda Eat Bamboo? A Comparative Analysis of Appetite-Reward-Related Genes among Mammals. PLos One 6, e22602

Ley RE, Hamady M, Lozupone C, Turnbaugh PJ, Ramey RR et al. (2008) Evolution of Mammals and Their Gut Microbes. Science 320, 1647-1651

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Nie Y, Zhang Z, Raubenheimer D, Elser JJ, Wei W, Wei F (2015) Obligate herbivory in an ancestrally carnivorous lineage: the giant panda and bamboo from the perspective of nutritional geometry. Functional Ecology 29, 26–34

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Xue Z, Zhang W, Wang L, Hou R, Zhang M et al. (2015) The bamboo-eating giant panda harbors a carnivore-like gut microbiota, with excessive seasonal variations. mBio 6(3), e00022-15

Zhao H, Yang JR, Xu H, Zhang J (2010) Pseudogenization of the Umami Taste Receptor Gene Tas1r1 in the Giant Panda Coincided with its Dietary Switch to Bamboo. Mol Biol Evol 27(12), 2669–2673

Zhu LF, Wu Q, Dai JY, Zhang SN, Wei FW (2011) Evidence of cellulose metabolism by the giant panda gut microbiome. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108, 17714–17719.


About Albert Bordons

Professor at "Universitat Rovira i Virgili" in Tarragona. Born in Barcelona 1951. Scientific areas: microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, oenology. I like: nature, biological sciences, photography, mountains, ... Languages: catalan (first one), spanish, french, english and some italian.

Posted on 30/09/2015, in Bacteria, Evolution, Genetics and molecular biology, Microbiota and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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