High in the Chinese mountains, inhabit the last populations in freedom of the giant panda, a species known to feed exclusively on bamboo.
Due to the characteristics of this tough and fibrous diet, these animals have developed distinctive teeth and skull, in addition to muscle characteristics and specific metabolic adaptations. They also have a adapted fake thumb to better support the stems, leaves and shoots of these plants.
A team made up of scientists from different Chinese institutions proposes in a study, published in Current Biology, that panda feeding has not always been this way and suggests that the ancestors of the current communities could have a more complex and varied diet.
“Until now, it has been accepted that pandas have been feeding exclusively on bamboo for the past two million years. However, our results show the opposite, "he says. Fuwen Wei, lead author of the study and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Analysis of the fossil bones of the giant panda
It's difficult to know exactly what extinct animals ateBut clues can be obtained by analyzing the composition of stable isotopes in teeth, hair, and bones, as well as fossil remains of animals.
"The isotopic compositions of food sources are incorporated into body tissues and the chemical component of the tissues directly reflects the chemical composition of their food intake," he explained to Sync, Wei.
In this way, the team first analyzed bone collagen from modern pandas –Examples from 1970 to 2000– and that of other mammals from the same mountains with different types of food.
Comparing the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of the modern panda with that of other mammalian samples, they observed three different groups: carnivores, herbivores and giant pandas. Pandas were clearly unique, due to their almost exclusive consumption of bamboo.
Finally, with this isotopic frame of reference, Wei's team measured bone collagen isotopes from twelve fossil specimens of ancient pandas, collected at seven archaeological sites in southern and southwest China.
The ancestors of the giant panda
Data comparison showed that ancient and modern pandas are isotopically distinct from each other, which suggests that there are differences in their eating habits. Additionally, the researchers found differences between two groups of archaic panda specimens.
According to Wei, “After careful analysis, we concluded that ancient pandas had a more complex diet, which supports our previous hypothesis that they have changed their diet in two stages: carnivorous and omnivorous to herbivorous and, from this, to a specialized one. bamboo ”.
The result of the study indicates that bamboo diet specialization did not occur until the Holocene, probably because the niche that these animals occupied was changing over the years.
“We believe that diet may have evolved due to rapid changes in the environment and competition with other species. Subsequently, the lack of food resources added to human pressure led to a specialization in their diet, "says Wei.
On the other hand, the results also revealed that this change in diet could be due to a change in habitat. "The giant panda was not only able to adapt to a cold and dry climate, but also survived in a hot and humid environment in southern China where we found the fossils," says the expert, adding that "the historic giant panda's habitat could include forest edges, junctions and open lands ”.
Currently, the area occupied by these populations has been considerably reduced.
The experts plan collect and study more samples of pandas from different eras over the past 5,000 years.
With this comprehensive study, they hope to improve understanding of the adaptation mechanism of giant pandas to the environment during their evolutionary history and to provide a scientific basis for the conservation and management of their populations in the future.
Han et al. "Diet Evolution and Habitat Contraction of Giant Pandas via Stable Isotope Analysis", Current Biology, January 2019, DOI: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30004-1.
Image: Stock Photos - By Johannes Asslaber on Shutterstock
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