Not bamboo, but ancient pandas were meat-eaters

Beijing: Extinct and ancient panda species were not exclusive bamboo eaters, and most likely had a more varied and complex diet, according to a study. The giant pandas we know today live only in the understory of particular mountains in southwestern China, where they subsist on bamboo alone.

“It has been widely accepted that giant pandas have exclusively fed on bamboo for the last two million years,” said Fuwen Wei of Chinese Academy of Sciences. However, the study shows the opposite. The researchers first analysed bone collagen of modern pandas (1970s-2000s) and other mammals from the same mountains.

The stable isotopic composition of carbon and nitrogen from modern panda and other modern mammal bone samples indicated three obvious groups: carnivores, herbivores, and giant pandas. Isotopes are different forms of the same element that contain equal numbers of protons but different numbers of neutrons.

Ancient pandas most likely had a varied diet, similar to that of other mammalian species that lived alongside them. They were “probably not exclusive bamboo feeders,” researchers said. The study suggests that pandas’ dietary habits have evolved in two phases. First, the pandas went from being meat eaters or omnivores to becoming dedicated plant eaters. Only later did they specialise on bamboo, researchers said.

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