When it comes to food, giant pandas have a reputation for being finicky. Every day, they consume up to 99 pounds of bamboo, which they eat exclusively.
But their progenitors, like most bears, ate a far broader diet that also contained meat, and it was considered that current pandas’ limited diet originated very recently. It turns out that pandas’ special fondness for bamboo dates back a minimum of 6 million years, presumably as a result of the plant’s all-year availability.
The sixth finger
Modern pandas have evolved a strange sixth finger, a thumb of some kind, that helps them effortlessly grab bamboo stalks and peel the leaves in order to subsist primarily on low-nutrient bamboo.
The most important adaptation to ingesting a huge amount of bamboo is crushing the stems into bite-sized pieces with your teeth. Fossils for pandas are scarce, therefore it was difficult for scientists to figure out how the bears came to possess this baffling trait. This thumb-like feature was first discovered in the fossil record between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago, according to previous studies.
Fossilized digits going back 6 to 7 million years have been discovered by Wang and his colleagues as evidence of pandas having an additional finger — and consequently an all-bamboo diet. Ailurarctos, the predecessor of the panda, was found in Yunnan Province in southwest China.
The “distinctive shape” of the giant panda’s sixth finger, which has remained unchanged for millions of years, suggests that it serves an important role in the panda’s survival, according to the research. Although this prehistoric structure was lengthier than that of current giant pandas with a shorter, hooked sixth finger, it was especially intriguing to the scientists engaged in the research.
Pandas’ shortened sixth finger represents an adaptive tradeoff between the requirement to bend bamboo and a need to move and carry their weighty bulk, according to researchers.
Scientific Reports, a peer-reviewed magazine, released the findings of the study on Thursday.
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