The bamboo-eating giant panda harbors a carnivore-like gut microbiota, with excessive seasonal variations.

PMID 25991678


The giant panda evolved from omnivorous bears. It lives on a bamboo-dominated diet at present, but it still retains a typical carnivorous digestive system and is genetically deficient in cellulose-digesting enzymes. To find out whether this endangered mammalian species, like other herbivores, has successfully developed a gut microbiota adapted to its fiber-rich diet, we conducted a 16S rRNA gene-based large-scale structural profiling of the giant panda fecal microbiota. Forty-five captive individuals were sampled in spring, summer, and late autumn within 1xa0year. Significant intraindividual variations in the diversity and structure of gut microbiota across seasons were observed in this population, which were even greater than the variations between individuals. Compared with published data sets involving 124 gut microbiota profiles from 54 mammalian species, these giant pandas, together with 9 captive and 7 wild individuals investigated previously, showed extremely low gut microbiota diversity and an overall structure that diverged from those of nonpanda herbivores but converged with those of carnivorous and omnivorous bears. The giant panda did not harbor putative cellulose-degrading phylotypes such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides bacteria that are typically enriched in other herbivores, but instead, its microbiota was dominated by Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus bacteria. Members of the class Clostridia were common and abundant in the giant panda gut microbiota, but most of the members present were absent in other herbivores and were not phylogenetically related with known cellulolytic lineages. Therefore, the giant panda appears not to have evolved a gut microbiota compatible with its newly adopted diet, which may adversely influence the coevolutionary fitness of this herbivore. The giant panda, an endangered mammalian species endemic to western China, is well known for its unique bamboo diet. Unlike other herbivores that have successfully evolved anatomically specialized digestive systems to efficiently deconstruct fibrous plant matter, the giant panda still retains a gastrointestinal tract typical of carnivores. We characterized the fecal bacterial communities from a giant panda population to determine whether this animal relies on its symbiotic gut microbiota to cope with the complex carbohydrates that dominate its diet, as is common in other herbivores. We found that the giant panda gut microbiota is low in diversity and highly variable across seasons. It also shows an overall composition typical of bears and entirely differentiated from other herbivores, with low levels of putative cellulose-digesting bacteria. The gut microbiota of this herbivore, therefore, may not have well adapted to its highly fibrous diet, suggesting a potential link with its poor digestive efficiency.