Steve Connor: Now we know why pandas went veggie

Science Notebook

Share
Related Topics

The giant panda has been considered one of the oddest of zoological specimens. Its anatomy suggests it belongs to the carnivorous mammals such as dogs, bears, raccoons, cats and seals, yet it subsists primarily on a diet of bamboo. Most experts believe that the herbivorous panda is descended from a meat-eating bear that evolved to eat plants – but this was based largely on conjecture.

Now the hypothesis can be tested in another way by analysing the panda's genes. A huge team of largely Chinese scientists have sequenced something like 94 per cent of the panda's genome and have concluded, among other things, that its bamboo diet might be more dependent on the bacteria that lives in its gut than on the type of genes it possesses.

The repertoire of genes that make up the panda's genome do indeed look rather like those of a typical carnivore. However, there is one notable exception. The gene responsible for the umami taste receptor – the ability to taste animal protein – is evidently defective when scientists looked at its genetic sequence, published in the journal Nature.

In this respect, the panda's genetic make-up reflects its abandonment of meat in favour of a bamboo diet because there was simply no need to continue to be able to detect the taste of animal protein. Like many animals that abandon a particular way of life, the panda has lost those adaptations that had specifically evolved for that modus operandi.

Stephen Jay Gould famously highlighted another feature of the panda that had evolved as a result of its transition to a bamboo diet. The panda's opposable "thumb", which is not actually a thumb but a bony extension of the sesamoid bone in its paw, helps the animal to strip the edible leaves from a bamboo cane. Gould used the example of the panda's thumb to show that evolution has to make do with what it has got in terms of existing anatomy – poor design is a better argument for evolution than good design.

It goes to show that every animal's genome has a story to tell. Especially the poor endangered panda, which has become such an icon for conservationists around the world.

A load of hot air

I had one of them climate sceptics in the back of me car the other day, berating me about how the science of global warming was crumbling away like a Himalayan glacier. Figuring that this was going to be a recurring theme I thought of a 30-second riposte.

Look at the facts. We know that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are rising. We know that burning fossil fuels is adding to the CO2 concentration in the air, and we know that carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas – not even the most fervent sceptic would disagree with those facts.

We can estimate from the established physics how much extra warming is occurring as a result of the above. If this extra warming is being added to the global climate system then where is this heat going if it is not warming up the Earth? Answers on a postcard please.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - Commercial Training

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The business development manage...

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne walks down the stairs from a submarine during a visit to the Royal Navy's submarine base at Faslane on August 31, 2015 in Faslane Scotland  

Sorry George Osborne, but it's Trident that makes us less safe, not Jeremy Corbyn

Kate Hudson
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent