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Gastrointestinal diseases are major causes of death among wild and captive pandas. Mississippi State University researchers are working with the Memphis Zoo to learn about the digestive processes of pandas, such as this giant panda housed at the zoo. (File photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence)
Gastrointestinal diseases are major causes of death among wild and captive pandas. Mississippi State University researchers are working with the Memphis Zoo to learn about the digestive processes of pandas, such as this giant panda housed at the zoo. (File photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence)

Louisville, Miss. veterinary assistant Ann McCart steadies Twister while Dr. Fred Nabers examines him on May 8, 2014, nearly a week after the dog arrived for treatment of injuries sustained in the April 28 tornado. (Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Linda Breazeale)
Mississippi State University researcher Ashli Brown Johnson collects a sample of excrement left by a giant panda at the Memphis Zoo. Samples are examined to learn what microbes are at work in pandas’ gastrointestinal systems. (File photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence)
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Panda restoration efforts
look at digestive systems

by Karen Brasher
Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi State University researchers were part of the team that learned that giant and red pandas have different digestive microbes, a finding with important implications for conservation efforts and captive animal rearing.

Gastrointestinal diseases are the major cause of mortality in wild and captive pandas, but little is known about their digestive process.

The giant panda is an endangered species, while the red panda is considered a vulnerable species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Both eat mostly fibrous bamboo.

Candace Williams, an MSU doctoral student in biochemistry, conducted the research in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Memphis Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Williams presented her findings at the American Society for Microbiology in Boston in May.

Her study was funded through the university’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the Memphis Zoological Society.

“Although they are different species, the giant panda and red panda share several characteristics,” Williams said.

Under the direction of biochemist Ashli Brown Johnson, MSU scientists set out to determine if there were similarities in the microbes that digest this plant-based diet.

To investigate the microbes, Williams collected fecal samples from two giant pandas and one red panda at the Memphis Zoo. The team also obtained samples from a red panda at the National Zoo. Williams used advanced genetic sequencing techniques to determine what gastrointestinal bacteria were present.

“The procedure revealed all microbes in the fecal matter, including some that were not known,” Johnson said. “Study of these microbes may have unrealized potential for agriculture, biomass digestion for bioenergy crops or other discovery research applications.”

Fecal samples from both species were dominated by plant material, which impeded identification of the microbes. A student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a method to remove this plant material, allowing the digestive microbes to be clearly identified.

“Our results revealed significant differences between the microbes found in the two panda species,” Johnson said. “While they have some similar microbes in their digestive tracts, each panda species has a different dominant microbe present.”

Understanding the gastrointestinal bacteria in pandas will help guide reforestation efforts throughout China’s mountainous region. The Chinese government has established 50 panda reserves within the animals’ home range. Additionally, China has banned logging to preserve the habitat of the declining species.

“With gastrointestinal disease causing the greatest natural mortality of red and giant pandas, a greater understanding of the digestive microbes will assist in maintaining captive panda populations housed at zoos,” Williams said.

Mississippi State scientists have worked with the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Zoology to monitor and identify the wild panda population. Future research will examine the nutritional composition of bamboo to determine whether the pandas are consuming different varieties of the fibrous plant.

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Released: May 19, 2014
Contact: Dr. Ashli Brown Johnson, 662-325-3324

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