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Concept: Giant Panda


The phylogenetic position of the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca (Carnivora: Ursidae: Ailuropodinae), has been one of the most hotly debated topics by mammalian biologists and paleontologists during the last century. Based on molecular data, it is currently recognized as a true ursid, sister-taxon of the remaining extant bears, from which it would have diverged by the Early Miocene. However, from a paleobiogeographic and chronological perspective, the origin of the giant panda lineage has remained elusive due to the scarcity of the available Miocene fossil record. Until recently, the genus Ailurarctos from the Late Miocene of China (ca. 8-7 mya) was recognized as the oldest undoubted member of the Ailuropodinae, suggesting that the panda lineage might have originated from an Ursavus ancestor. The role of the purported ailuropodine Agriarctos, from the Miocene of Europe, in the origins of this clade has been generally dismissed due to the paucity of the available material. Here, we describe a new ailuropodine genus, Kretzoiarctos gen. nov., based on remains from two Middle Miocene (ca. 12-11 Ma) Spanish localities. A cladistic analysis of fossil and extant members of the Ursoidea confirms the inclusion of the new genus into the Ailuropodinae. Moreover, Kretzoiarctos precedes in time the previously-known, Late Miocene members of the giant panda clade from Eurasia (Agriarctos and Ailurarctos). The former can be therefore considered the oldest recorded member of the giant panda lineage, which has significant implications for understanding the origins of this clade from a paleobiogeographic viewpoint.

Concepts: Phylogenetics, Giant Panda, Carnivora, Bear, Ailuropoda, Qinling Panda, Ailuridae, Red Panda


The digestion of lignin and lignin-related phenolic compounds from bamboo by giant pandas has puzzled scientists because of the lack of lignin-degrading genes in the genome of the bamboo-feeding animals. We constructed a 16S rRNA gene library from the microorganisms derived from the giant panda feces to identify the possibility for the presence of potential lignin-degrading bacteria. Phylogenetic analysis showed that the phylotypes of the intestinal bacteria were affiliated with the phyla Proteobacteria (53%) and Firmicutes (47%). Two phylotypes were affiliated with the known lignin-degrading bacterium Pseudomonas putida and the mangrove forest bacteria. To test the hypothesis that microbes in the giant panda gut help degrade lignin, a metagenomic library of the intestinal bacteria was constructed and screened for clones that contained genes encoding laccase, a lignin-degrading related enzyme. A multicopper oxidase gene, designated as lac51, was identified from a metagenomic clone. Sequence analysis and copper content determination indicated that Lac51 is a laccase rather than a metallo-oxidase and may work outside its original host cell because it has a TAT-type signal peptide and a transmembrane segment at its N-terminus. Lac51 oxidizes a variety of lignin-related phenolic compounds, including syringaldazine, 2,6-dimethoxyphenol, ferulic acid, veratryl alcohol, guaiacol, and sinapinic acid at conditions that simulate the physiologic environment in giant panda intestines. Furthermore, in the presence of 2,2'-azino-bis(3-ethylbenzothiazoline-6-sulfonic acid) (ABTS), syringic acid, or ferulic acid as mediators, the oxidative ability of Lac51 on lignin was promoted. The absorbance of lignin at 445 nm decreased to 36% for ABTS, 51% for syringic acid, and 51% for ferulic acid after incubation for 10 h. Our findings demonstrate that the intestinal bacteria of giant pandas may facilitate the oxidation of lignin moieties, thereby clarifying the digestion of bamboo lignin by the animal.

Concepts: Protein, Archaea, Bacteria, Gut flora, Enzyme, 16S ribosomal RNA, Giant Panda, Vanillin


Near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) has been successfully used for non-invasive diagnosis of diseases and abnormalities where water spectral patterns are found to play an important role. The present study investigates water absorbance patterns indicative of estrus in the female giant panda. NIR spectra of urine samples were acquired from the same animal on a daily basis over three consecutive putative estrus periods. Characteristic water absorbance patterns based on 12 specific water absorbance bands were discovered, which displayed high urine spectral variation, suggesting that hydrogen-bonded water structures increase with estrus. Regression analysis of urine spectra and spectra of estrone-3-glucuronide standard concentrations at these water bands showed high correlation with estrogen levels. Cluster analysis of urine spectra grouped together estrus samples from different years. These results open a new avenue for using water structure as a molecular mirror for fast estrus detection.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Regression analysis, Cluster analysis, Water, Infrared spectroscopy, Infrared, Near infrared spectroscopy, Giant Panda


Understanding and sustaining biodiversity is a multi-disciplinary science that benefits highly from the creation of organized and accessible collections of biomaterials (Genome Resource Banks). Large cryo-collections are invaluable tools for understanding, cataloging, and protecting the genetic diversity of the world’s unique animals and plants. Specifically, the systematic collection and preservation of semen from rare species has been developed significantly in recent decades with some biobanks now being actively used for endangered species management and propagation (including the introduction of species such as the black-footed ferret and the giant panda). Innovations emerging from the growing field of male fertility preservation for humans, livestock species, and laboratory animals are also becoming relevant to the protection and the propagation of valuable domestic and wild species. These new approaches extend beyond the “classical” methods associated with sperm freezing to include testicular tissue preservation combined with xenografting or in vitro culture, all of which have potential for rescuing vast amounts of unused germplasm. There also are other options under development that are predicted to have a high impact within the next decade (stem cell technologies, bio-stabilization of sperm cells at ambient temperatures, and the use of genomics tools). However, biobanking efforts and new fertility preservation strategies have to expand the way beyond mammalian species, which will offer knowledge and tools to better manage species that serve as valuable biomedical models or require assistance to reverse endangerment.

Concepts: Cell, Biodiversity, Species, Sperm, Endangered species, Fertility, Spermatozoon, Giant Panda


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 1 year. 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.

Concepts: Bacteria, Gut flora, Animal, Endangered species, Giant Panda, Omnivore, Carnivora, Bear


The collapse of some pre-historical and historical cultures, including Chinese dynasties were presumably linked to widespread droughts, on the basis of synchronicities of societal crises and proxy-based climate events. Here, we present a comparison of ancient inscriptions in Dayu Cave from Qinling Mountains, central China, which described accurate times and detailed impacts of seven drought events during the period of 1520-1920 CE, with high-resolution speleothem records from the same cave. The comparable results provide unique and robust tests on relationships among speleothem δ(18)O changes, drought events, and societal unrest. With direct historical evidences, our results suggest that droughts and even modest events interrupting otherwise wet intervals can cause serious social crises. Modeling results of speleothem δ(18)O series suggest that future precipitation in central China may be below the average of the past 500 years. As Qinling Mountain is the main recharge area of two large water transfer projects and habitats of many endangered species, it is imperative to explore an adaptive strategy for the decline in precipitation and/or drought events.

Concepts: Precipitation, Climate, China, Endangered species, Meteorology, Giant Panda, Adaptation, Drought


The giant panda is an icon of conservation and survived a large-scale bamboo die off in the 1980s in China. Captive breeding programs have produced a large population in zoos and efforts continue to reintroduce those animals into the wild. However, we lack sufficient knowledge of their physiological ecology to determine requirements for survival now and in the face of climate change. We measured resting and active metabolic rates of giant pandas in order to determine if current bamboo resources were sufficient for adding additional animals to populations in natural reserves. Resting metabolic rates were somewhat below average for a panda sized mammal and active metabolic rates were in the normal range. Pandas do not have exceptionally low metabolic rates. Nevertheless, there is enough bamboo in natural reserves to support both natural populations and large numbers of reintroduced pandas. Bamboo will not be the limiting factor in successful reintroduction.

Concepts: Ecology, Giant Panda, Carnivora, Wildlife management, Conservation reliant species, Red Panda, Bamboo, Zoo


The giant panda genome codes for all necessary enzymes associated with a carnivorous digestive system but lacks genes for enzymes needed to digest cellulose, the principal component of their bamboo diet. It has been posited that this iconic species must therefore possess microbial symbionts capable of metabolizing cellulose, but these symbionts have remained undetected. Here we examined 5,522 prokaryotic ribosomal RNA gene sequences in wild and captive giant panda fecal samples. We found lower species richness of the panda microbiome than of mammalian microbiomes for herbivores and nonherbivorous carnivores. We detected 13 operational taxonomic units closely related to Clostridium groups I and XIVa, both of which contain taxa known to digest cellulose. Seven of these 13 operational taxonomic units were unique to pandas compared with other mammals. Metagenomic analysis using ~37-Mbp contig sequences from gut microbes recovered putative genes coding two cellulose-digesting enzymes and one hemicellulose-digesting enzyme, cellulase, β-glucosidase, and xylan 1,4-β-xylosidase, in Clostridium group I. Comparing glycoside hydrolase profiles of pandas with those of herbivores and omnivores, we found a moderate abundance of oligosaccharide-degrading enzymes for pandas (36%), close to that for humans (37%), and the lowest abundance of cellulases and endohemicellulases (2%), which may reflect low digestibility of cellulose and hemicellulose in the panda’s unique bamboo diet. The presence of putative cellulose-digesting microbes, in combination with adaptations related to feeding, physiology, and morphology, show that giant pandas have evolved a number of traits to overcome the anatomical and physiological challenge of digesting a diet high in fibrous matter.

Concepts: Protein, Bacteria, Metabolism, RNA, Cellulose, Hydrolysis, Digestion, Giant Panda


The panda lineage dates back to the late Miocene and ultimately leads to only one extant species, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Although global climate change and anthropogenic disturbances are recognized to shape animal population demography their contribution to panda population dynamics remains largely unknown. We sequenced the whole genomes of 34 pandas at an average 4.7-fold coverage and used this data set together with the previously deep-sequenced panda genome to reconstruct a continuous demographic history of pandas from their origin to the present. We identify two population expansions, two bottlenecks and two divergences. Evidence indicated that, whereas global changes in climate were the primary drivers of population fluctuation for millions of years, human activities likely underlie recent population divergence and serious decline. We identified three distinct panda populations that show genetic adaptation to their environments. However, in all three populations, anthropogenic activities have negatively affected pandas for 3,000 years.

Concepts: Demography, Climate change, Giant Panda, Carnivora, Bear, Ailuropoda, Qinling Panda, Memphis Zoo


BACKGROUND: Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins constitute an essential component of the vertebrate immune response, and are coded by the most polymorphic of the vertebrate genes. Here, we investigated sequence variation and evolution of MHC class I and class II DRB, DQA and DQB genes in the brown bear Ursus arctos to characterise the level of polymorphism, estimate the strength of positive selection acting on them, and assess the extent of gene orthology and trans-species polymorphism in Ursidae. RESULTS: We found 37 MHC class I, 16 MHC class II DRB, four DQB and two DQA alleles. We confirmed the expression of several loci: three MHC class I, two DRB, two DQB and one DQA. MHC class I also contained two clusters of non-expressed sequences. MHC class I and DRB allele frequencies differed between northern and southern populations of the Scandinavian brown bear. The rate of nonsynonymous substitutions (dN) exceeded the rate of synonymous substitutions (dS) at putative antigen binding sites of DRB and DQB loci and, marginally significantly, at MHC class I loci. Models of codon evolution supported positive selection at DRB and MHC class I loci. Both MHC class I and MHC class II sequences showed orthology to gene clusters found in the giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca. CONCLUSIONS: Historical positive selection has acted on MHC class I, class II DRB and DQB, but not on the DQA locus. The signal of historical positive selection on the DRB locus was particularly strong, which may be a general feature of caniforms. The presence of MHC class I pseudogenes may indicate faster gene turnover in this class through the birth-and-death process. South–north population structure at MHC loci probably reflects origin of the populations from separate glacial refugia.

Concepts: Immune system, Gene, Genetics, Evolution, Major histocompatibility complex, MHC class I, Giant Panda, Bear