Modern pandas exclusively eat bamboo, and have specialised teeth and skulls to deal with the tough material as well as “pseudo thumbs” that enable them to grapple with shoots.
But despite these adaptations, scientists think ancient pandas had far more varied diets.
“It has been widely accepted that giant pandas have exclusively fed on bamboo for the last two million years,” says Dr Fuwen Wei of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“Our results showed the opposite.”
The researchers were able to gain an insight into the ancient diets of these extinct creatures by examining the chemical composition of their bones.
When comparing the collagen protein found in ancient panda bones with those belonging to contemporary pandas, they noticed a clear distinction between them.
While panda bones today have roughly the same chemical composition due to their consistent diet, the ancient creatures showed a lot of variation. This in turn suggested a varied diet fuelled by meat as well as plants.
Dr Wei and his colleagues concluded these bears likely evolved their unique dietary habits in two stages, starting out as meat eaters or at least omnivores, before moving to plants and then ultimately settling on bamboo.
Today, the panda’s dependence on bamboo has helped push them towards their current endangered status, as expanding human developments destroy the forests they rely on for survival.
The results of the study were published in the journal Current Biology.
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