Is pandas secret to staying plump thanks to their poop?

When it comes to food, giant pandas are among the picky eaters. They enjoy almost exclusively plants and mainly bamboo. Relatively low calorie food for animals of this size. How do they keep their shape at any time of the year? The answer lies in their gut microbiota.

At least that’s what the study, published this month in the journal, is. Cell reports. This work, led by Chinese researchers, confirmed the presence of seasonal changes in the composition of the intestinal flora of animals. In other words, in the bacteria present in their digestive system.

This modification will allow them to extract and store more nutrients from the bamboo they consume. “We have established for the first time a causal relationship between the panda gut microbiota and its phenotype.“, – said in a press release Guangping Huang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the first author of the study.

Leaves or shoots, it’s a matter of season

Depending on the season, pandas may feed on bamboo in different forms. If leaves are on the menu most of the time, then in spring and summer they can also turn into young shoots that are richer in protein and other nutrients.

We have known for a long time that pandas have a different composition of their gut microbiota during sprout season, and it is clear that pandas gain weight at this time of year.“, – said Guangping Huang. It remained to establish a connection between the two observations.

To do this, scientists collected the feces of eight wild pandas in different seasons and examined the differences between the samples. They found that mammals had a significantly higher concentration of bacteria called Clostridium butyricum in their intestines during sprout season.

They then transplanted faeces from various wild-collected specimens into mice before feeding them a bamboo diet that mimics what pandas eat for three weeks. Result: the subjects showed significant differences depending on the season of faeces collection.

More or less plump depending on the microbiota

Thus, mice transplanted with sprout-eating faeces gained significantly more weight and were fatter than mice transplanted with samples from the leaf-eating season. And this despite the fact that all rodents swallowed the same amount of food.

Additional analyzes showed that the bacteria C. butyricum produced a metabolic compound capable of overexpressing the expression of a gene that promotes lipid synthesis and storage. Clearly, this gut microbiota composition appears to stimulate fat metabolism in pandas during the growing season.

This may allow animals to accumulate more fat during this period – summer and spring – to compensate for the season when they consume only less nutritious leaves.

Relationships to be confirmed

Giant pandas are not the only ones to experience such seasonal changes in their gut bacteria depending on the availability of resources. According to scientists, some species of monkeys also have a different flora in summer, when they feed on fresh leaves and fruits, compared to winter, when they have to make do with tree bark.

However, further research is needed to confirm the proposed relationship and learn more. Moreover, the experiments were carried out on mice that are very different from pandas. “We cannot test directly on endangered and vulnerable wild animals.“, Guangping Huang justified.

But “our study created a mouse model for future faecal transplant experiments that could help in the study of the gut microbiota of wild animals.He said he and his colleagues now plan to identify more microorganisms in the panda’s gut and study their role in the animal’s health.

The team said the work could help improve the health of captive individuals. They can also help shed light on the mystery of this species’ diet, which continues to intrigue. Although it is almost exclusively a herbivore, it has various characteristics similar to those of a carnivore, including a digestive system capable of digesting meat.

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