The giant pandas we know and love today live only in the sub-basin of separate mountains in southwestern China, where they only support bamboo. To support their heavy and fibrous diet from bamboo, they receive distinctive teeth, skulls and muscular features along with a special pseudo-finger, it is better to understand and retain the bamboo stems, leaves and shoots. But, according to new evidence reported in Current biology On January 31st, the missing and ancient panda species probably had a more diverse and complex diet.
"It's generally accepted that giant pandas are exclusively bamboo feed in the last two million years," says Fulen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But, "our results showed contradiction".
It is impossible to know exactly what the extinct animals disappeared. But researchers can get clues in analyzing the composition of stable isotopes (different forms of the same element that contain an equal number of protons but a different number of neutrons) in animal teeth, hair and bones, including fossil remains. In a new study, the researchers first analyzed the bone collagen of modern pandas (1970s-2000s) and other mammals from the same mountains.
The stable isotope composition of carbon and nitrogen from the modern panda and other modern bone samples suggests three obvious groups: carnivores, herbivores, and giant pandas. The giant pandas were clearly unique, because of their habit of eating bamboo. Next, the Wei team measured isotopes from collagen bones of 12 ancient pandas collected from seven archaeological sites in southern and southwestern China and compared them with the patterns they noted in modern giant pandas.
A comparison of the data showed that ancient and modern pandas are isotope-free from others, suggesting differences in their dietary habits. There were also more variations among ancient pandas, suggesting that the niche they occupied was about three times wider than that of modern pandas. That is, the ancient pandas probably had a diverse diet, similar to that of other species of mammals who lived with them. They were, researchers write, "probably not exclusive bamboo feeders".
The researchers suggest that pandas feeding habits develop in two phases. First, the pandas came from the fact that carnivores or omnivores became devoted plants of plants. Only later they specialize in bamboo.
The researchers say they would now want to know when exactly Pandas switched to the specialized diet they have today. To find out, they plan to gather and study more panda samples from different historical times over the last 5,000 years.
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