On Thursday, July 11, 2015, scientists discovered that giant pandas in China are able to survive off of a vegetarian diet even though their bodies are better suited for eating meat. Three wild pandas from Foping Nature Reserve in Shaanxi province and eight pandas at Beijing Zoo were studied and researchers found that their daily energy expenditure was only 38 percent compared to animals of a similar size.
Biologist Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology in Beijing led the study; his findings were published in the journal Science.
Researchers also noted that the giant pandas had low levels of thyroid hormones, and believe the pandas’ low metabolism is due to this. Since the metabolic process that contributes to the use of energy is controlled by the thyroid gland, researchers believe a mutation of a gene involved in this process (DUOX2) occurred.
Scientists also noted that smaller organ sizes of the brain, liver, and kidney in the giant pandas also bear a correlation with the animal’s reduced need for energy.
The World Wildlife Fund reports that there are only 1,800 giant pandas remaining in the wild.