The huge pandas we know and love today live only in the special mountains of southwest China, where they live only bamboo. Supporting a rigorous and fibrous bamboo diet, they have different teeth, skull and muscle characteristics, as well as a special pseudonovets, the better it is to grab and hold bamboo stems, leaves and shoots. But according to the new evidence reported Current Biology On January 31, extinct and ancient panda species were more diverse and complex.
"It is widely assumed that giant pandas have only fed bamboo in the last two years," says Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But, "our results showed the opposite."
It is impossible to know exactly what animals have died. But researchers can get clues by analyzing the composition of stable isotopes (different types of elements containing the same number of protons but different neutron numbers) in animal teeth, hair and bones, including fossil residues. In the new study, researchers first analyzed modern pandas bone collagen (1970-2000 G.) and other mammals from the same mountains.
The stable composition of carbon and nitrogen from modern pandas and other modern mammalian bone samples showed three obvious groups: predators, herbivores and giant pandas. The giant pandas were clearly unique in terms of their habit of eating bamboo. Next, Wei's team measured 12 ancient pandan bone collagen isotopes collected from seven archaeological sites in southern and southwestern China and compared them with modern giant pandas.
Comparison of data showed that ancient and modern pandas are isotopically different from each other, suggesting different dietary habits. There were also greater variations among the ancient panda species, suggesting that its niche was about three times wider than modern pandas. This means that ancient pandas were likely to have a diverse diet similar to other mammalian species that lived alongside them. They were, researchers write, "probably not exclusive bamboo feeders."
Researchers point out that pandas dietary habits have evolved in two stages. First of all, the pandas went from meat eaters or omnivores to becoming special herbivores. Only later did they specialize in bamboo production.
The researchers say they would now like to find out exactly where the pandas moved to the specialized diet they are today. To find out, they plan to collect and explore a number of panda samples from different historical times over the past 5,000 years.
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