Poo study of Edinburgh giant pandas could help save species

One of the giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, where scientists hope that by analysing the animals scats they will help the species to avoid extinction in the wild. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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If you think kids are picky, try feeding a giant panda.

The animals’ diet consists almost entirely of bamboo, but they will eat only certain species and what type they like varies on the time of year. And sometimes pandas eat nothing but one variety for a week, then refuse to eat it ever again.

Now scientists are determined to better understand the eating habits of the planet’s fussiest animal – with the help of poo from Edinburgh Zoo’s two giant pandas.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the only giant pandas in the UK, will have their poos – called “scats” – put under the microscope in an effort to find ways to conserve the species in the wild by better understanding exactly what they eat.

Experts from both the zoo and the city’s Royal Botanic Garden will research the hidden complexity of panda diet.

Previous work has suggested pandas may eat as many as 60 species of bamboo and possibly consume other plant species, fungi and animals.

And it has already been established that not all species of bamboo are popular with the giant panda. They eat about 40 different types, and each type has a different nutritional value. Some can be more difficult to digest.

However, there remains a huge gap in understanding exactly what they eat and when they eat it and we have almost no information on what or why species other than bamboo are eaten.

The scientists will receive samples from Edinburgh and other zoos around the world, where it is known exactly what and how much the animals have been fed, to develop DNA-based methods to use on samples from the wild.

Dr Linda Neaves, the molecular ecologist leading the Botanics team, explained: “Next-generation sequencing technologies will be used to investigate the DNA in panda scats to identify exactly what has been eaten and even which panda has eaten it.

“These methods have the potential to overcome many of the problems that have been restricting our understanding and allow us to investigate and quantify the variation in diet and contributing factors such as sex, season and availability.

“This information will help refine understanding of giant panda habitat now and how it might change in the future. This, in turn, will provide valuable information for management and conservation of wild panda populations”.

The project is part of an international effort by the Edinburgh Consortium for Giant Panda Conservation and Forest Landscape Restoration and includes expertise from China and Australia.

They hope by finding the favourite and most nutritional types of bamboo, and any other food, enjoyed by giant pandas that more can be done to ensure the animals have the correct food available to prevent them becoming extinct.

The director of giant pandas at the zoo, Iain Valentine, said the project would “make a substantial contribution to the future of the giant panda both in captivity and in the wild”.

Tian Tian (which means Sweetie in Chinese) and male Yang Guang (Sunshine) were the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years when they arrived on loan from China in 2011. Despite a number of attempts, the pair has so far failed to reproduce.

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