Exceptionally low daily energy expenditure in the bamboo-eating giant panda

Science  10 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6244, pp. 171-174
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2413

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Laid-back bamboo eater

Pandas are members of the order Carnivora but are entirely herbivorous, living almost exclusively on bamboo. Unlike most other herbivorous species, however, their digestive tract has not evolved the long twists and turns that facilitate the slower digestion necessary for cellulose-rich plants. Nie et al. measured energy expenditure in both wild and captive pandas, which was extremely low, relative to other mammals. The pandas' thyroid hormone levels are also a fraction of the mammalian norm.

Science, this issue p. 171


The carnivoran giant panda has a specialized bamboo diet, to which its alimentary tract is poorly adapted. Measurements of daily energy expenditure across five captive and three wild pandas averaged 5.2 megajoules (MJ)/day, only 37.7% of the predicted value (13.8 MJ/day). For the wild pandas, the mean was 6.2 MJ/day, or 45% of the mammalian expectation. Pandas achieve this exceptionally low expenditure in part by reduced sizes of several vital organs and low physical activity. In addition, circulating levels of thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) averaged 46.9 and 64%, respectively, of the levels expected for a eutherian mammal of comparable size. A giant panda–unique mutation in the DUOX2 gene, critical for thyroid hormone synthesis, might explain these low thyroid hormone levels. A combination of morphological, behavioral, physiological, and genetic adaptations, leading to low energy expenditure, likely enables giant pandas to survive on a bamboo diet.

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