Giant pandas, which we know and love today, live only in the undergrowth of individual mountains in southwestern China, where they feed only on bamboo. In support of their rigid and fibrous bamboo diet, they have distinctive characteristics of teeth, skull and muscles, as well as a special pseudo-thumb, which is better to hold and hold bamboo stems, leaves and shoots. But according to new data reported in Current Biology On January 31, extinct and ancient panda species most likely had a more varied and complex diet.
“It is widely recognized that giant pandas have been feeding exclusively on bamboo for the past two million years,” said Fouvin Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But "our results showed the opposite."
It is impossible to know exactly what extinct animals ate. But researchers can get clues by analyzing the composition of stable isotopes (different forms of the same element that contain the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons) in the teeth, hair, and bones of animals, including fossil remains. In the new study, scientists first analyzed the bone collagen of modern pandas (1970–2000s) and other mammals from the same mountains.
The stable isotopic composition of carbon and nitrogen from samples of the modern panda and other modern mammalian bones points to three obvious groups: carnivorous, herbivorous, and giant pandas. Giant pandas were clearly unique because of their habit of eating bamboo. The Wei group then measured 12 ancient pandas bone collagen isotopes, collected in seven archaeological sites in the south and south-west of China, and compared them with the drawings they observed in modern giant pandas.
Comparison of the data showed that the ancient and modern pandas are isotopically different from each other, which indicates differences in their dietary habits. Among the ancient species of pandas, there were also more differences, suggesting that the niche they occupied was about three times wider than in modern pandas. That is, the ancient pandas, most likely, had a varied diet, similar to the diet of other species of mammals that lived next to them. Researchers write that they are “not exceptional bamboo feeders.”
Researchers suggest that pandas' food habits evolved in two stages. First, pandas have evolved from those who eat meat or omnivorous, and become loyal eaters of plants. Only later did they specialize in bamboo.
Researchers say that now they would like to find out exactly when the pandas switched to the specialized diet that they have today. To find out, they plan to collect and study more samples of pandas from different historical times over the past 5,000 years.
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