A giant panda resting after a bamboo meal.

Last week, scientists finally revealed the Giant Panda’s secret to survival. The journal Science published a research finding based on the study of 8 pandas which revealed the reasons behind their ability to survive on an almost exclusively bamboo diet. Several aspects such as behavior and under-developed organs  factor into the matter.

Researchers used GPS trackers to monitor animals both in their natural habitat and in captivity. The results show that pandas have only 38% of the daily energy expenditure of other similarly sized mammals. Though generally bears are not regarded as the most active creatures, pandas are significantly more sluggish than their brown cousins.

Pandas spend close to half of the day just sleeping and resting. They do not hunt or even walk significant distances and therefore have a very low metabolism. This metabolism allows them to survive on bamboo alone, which is a very low nutrient plant and hard to digest (only 17% of the consumed bamboo is actually retained in their bodies).

The researchers also claim that the panda’s liver, kidneys and even brain are smaller than those found in other bears, which should aid them in burning less calories every day and maintaining a low daily energy demand. Their energy consumption levels are unusually low for such a large animal.

From this perspective, the panda is more akin to the sloth, another notoriously “lazy” mammal, while being significantly lazier than the koala, claims lead study author Fuwen Wei, zoology professor at the Beijing Academy of Sciences.

Another important focus of the study was the panda’s thyroid gland, which is now known to produce a very low amount of hormones, contributing to the animal’s limited daily use of energy. Strangely, the mammal’s stomach on the other hand has remained behind from an evolutionary standpoint, and is not adapted to the consumption of bamboo, but rather on digesting high-protein tissue such as meat.

These recent findings shed a lot of light on the animal’s habits and may very well aid in the preservation of one of the most high-profile endangered species on the planet. The behavior of pandas, especially their mating rituals, are notoriously hard to comprehend and reproduce in artificial environments. This breakthrough might just provide the answer we need to better understand their needs for survival.

There are less than 2,000 panda’s left on this planet, but this study could get us closer to saving them.

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