Pandas are closely related to carnivorous mammals (like all the other bears), but they consume mostly bamboo. Their digestive tracts are short and adapted for digesting meat, not cellulose that is found in plants. In fact, they only digest about 20% of all the bamboo they eat, and they eat a lot of bamboo (30-60 pounds a day)! How are these large, adorable bears able to get enough energy to function from their inefficient digestion of bamboo? Researchers in China and Scotland addressed this question by studying captive and wild pandas, described in a recent Science article.
Low energy expenditure
Nie et al. measured the daily energy expenditure of the pandas and found that they used an unusually low amount of energy, only 37.7% of the predicted value based on their body mass. In fact, pandas are expending energy at levels similar to the three-toed sloth, the epitome of a low-energy mammal. The measly amount of nutrients they get from all that bamboo would be able to sustain such a low energy expenditure, so that’s how the panda is able to get by with such a maladapted digestive system.
How do the pandas manage to spend so little energy? There must be some adaptations that are allowing the panda to survive without expending so much energy. The authors found a number of these adaptations:
1) Pandas have a thick layer of fur, so they can maintain their internal body temperature with less heat loss through the skin. The researchers measured temperature at the surface of various animals and the pandas consistently were cooler than other mammals (like a cow or dog). Their internal body temperature would be considerably warmer because the fur helps insulate them, so they don’t have to spend as much energy on maintaining their body temperature.
2) Pandas are lazy. No surprise: pandas spend more time inactive and when they do move, it is slowly. So that is less energy needed for muscle contractions.
3) Pandas have small brains, livers and kidneys, so their organs need less energy.
4) Pandas have a low resting metabolic rate, which is driven by the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. In fact, levels of these two hormones were considerably lower than for other mammals of the same body mass, even lower than a hibernating bear. The thyroid hormones regulate protein, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, as well as growth and development. If the pandas don’t need to produce as much heat or energy, then there is no reason to have a high metabolic rate.
Interestingly, pandas have a single mutation in a gene called DUOX2, which is not found in any other mammals. DUOX2 encodes for a protein that is necessary for the production of T3 and T4. The mutation causes a premature “stop” in the protein, so it likely affects the function of DUOX2.
In other words, pandas cannot synthesize T3 and T4 as well because of this mutation, so they have a reduced metabolic rate. But that’s okay, because they are good at maintaining their body temperature and they have developed an enjoyable lifestyle of relaxing and eating. The fact that their digestive tracts have not evolved for plant digestion is alright given the fact that they don’t really need that much energy from their food. So it all works out: pandas are able to survive on their diet of bamboo and we can watch them sit around.