The popular known fact that bamboo is the only food that panda exclusively feeds on, is not true. Researchers from the Monell Center have found that the panda has also liking for sweet food. The research, based on panda behavior and molecular genetics reveals the presence of taste receptors and confirms that the panda has a strong liking for natural sweeteners as fructose and sucrose.
According to Danielle Reed, leading the study and a behavioral geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says that studying the panda’s taste DNA shows that the panda prefer sweet food and reveals other important knowledge about their diet. Such findings will enhance our knowledge and help in raising the endangered species in captivity. She also studied the role of taste receptor genes in developing preferences and selection towards a particular taste or diet.
Genetic mutation led to inoperative sweet tooth
A prior study suggests that panda and cats are distant relatives belonging to the same taxonomic order known as the Carnivora, but they both follow a different diet. Researchers found that a genetic mutation in cats, have made sweet taste receptors inactive and rendered them incapable to taste sweet foods. Giant panda on the other hand, is totally dependent on bamboo, which contain almost negligible amount of sweet. This raises a question, whether panda, similar to cats have defunct their ability to taste sweet?
For the research, Reed and her at the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center in China, closely monitored eight pandas’ between 3 to 22 years of age for six months. The team offered pandas’ two bowl with different liquids to choose and drink, within a time period of 5 minutes One of the bowls had plain water while the other bowl had any one of six naturally occurring sugars, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, and sucrose. The concentration of sugar dissolved in the water varied too.
Clearly, panda preferred water with dissolved sugar over the plain water. Out of the six types of sugar, they liked water that contained fructose and sucrose the most and gulp down an entire liter of sweetened water within the given 5 minutes time.
The team also tested panda’s preferences with artificial sweeteners and found that the panda did not quite like them. Researchers believed that the pandas were unable to taste these artificial sugars.
The researchers also conducted a cellular analysis on the DNA received from the pandas while conducting regular health checkups. They separated genes from sweet receptors DNA and in the laboratory infused them into human host cells. These cells responded to natural sugars and not to the artificial sweeteners. The test also confirmed that pandas sweet taste receptors are still functional, that can detect and respond to natural sugars.
Another researcher involved in the study, Peihua Jiang, who is also a molecular biologist at Monell, said that the study has for the first time focused on taste preference of pandas in relation to their feeding behavior. Going forward researchers plans to examine whether the pandas have the ability to taste bitter flavors.
Jiang believes that the findings from such studies will help to conserve the species that are on the verge of getting extinct, due to the continuous destruction of their wild habitat.