Bamboo looks like a kind of meat

Monday, May 6th, 2019

The Giant Panda is a closet carnivore:

The giant panda, a consummate vegetarian, belongs to a group of mammals called Carnivora, so-called because almost all of them — dogs, cats, hyenas, weasels, mongooses, raccoons, and more — eat meat. But the giant panda’s diet of bamboo, and little else, makes it a vegetarian.

At least, outwardly.

Yonggang Nie and Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have spent years tracking wild pandas, analyzing exactly what kinds of bamboo they eat, and measuring the chemicals within those mouthfuls. And they found that the nutrient profile of a panda’s all-bamboo diet — very high in protein, and low in carbohydrates — is much closer to that of a typical carnivore than to that of other plant-eating mammals. “It was a surprise,” Wei says. Nutritionally, “bamboo looks like a kind of meat.”


Plant-eating mammals almost always have enlarged, elongated guts to slow the passage of food, and to give their inner bacteria more time to digest their meals. The panda, however, has the short, vanilla gut of a carnivore. Even its gut microbes are closer to a bear’s than, say, a cow’s or deer’s. Nie and Wei’s study makes sense of this paradoxical combination of traits. The giant panda has the plumbing of a half-committed herbivore because it has the diet of a closet carnivore.


  1. Graham says:

    Smarter than the average bear. Been flying under our radar for centuries. Maybe they’ll turn on us one day…

  2. Kirk says:

    Y’know… I was under the impression that bears were not obligate carnivores, but instead were omnivores. Why is it a big surprise to find that the sole supposedly herbivorous bear is actually… Not?

    I’m just surprised at the surprise, to tell you the truth. Even polar bears eat lichen and moss, or so I’ve been told.

  3. Graham says:

    In retrospect, I should have said:

    “Smarter than the average bear. Playin possum for 20 years. Maybe they’ll turn on us one day…”

    That way I could have gotten brown bears AND possums into the gag, not to mention combining a Yogi Bear self-assessment with a Yosemite Sam remark. And straddling two cartoon companies. Ah well. 3AM wisdom.

    In The Bugs Bunny cartoon Fair Haired Hare Bugs emerges from a hole in the floor of Sam’s cabin, right into and through the mouth of a bearskin rug, in which he becomes trapped and starts screaming for help. Sam comes in, sizes up the situation, blasts the rug with a shotgun, and then complains the bear’s been playing possum for 20 years.

    Amazing the stuff that sticks in the mind for decades.

    Always liked the pandas. No inclination to freak out and go see them every time China loans out a couple, but I’m glad those guys are out there. They always look at the camera as if they know things and aren’t talking.

    And yeah- I think I was under the impression bears need meat proteins for their diet, and in quantity, maybe not life or death necessity like cats, but they might not be able to subsist entirely on berries and such for reasons of sheer quantity required. But they do eat berries and other plant matter. I think all bear types do.

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