MALAGA, Spain, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The giant panda, a well-known vegetarian, may have given up eating meat more recently than previously believed, Spanish researchers say.
Researchers have long thought pandas' ancestors began switching from meat to bamboo 7 million years ago and were strictly vegetarians by 2 million years ago.
However, a new study suggests some old habits die hard, NewScientist.com reported Monday.
Researchers at the University of Malaga in Spain compared the skulls of the living giant panda with two extinct panda species: a pygmy panda, Ailuropoda microta, which roamed the Earth 2 million years ago, and the 100,000-year-old Ailuropoda baconi.
They also analyzed the skulls of 171 living bear species that don't eat bamboo.
From comparison of the skulls the researchers were able to make determinations about their likely dietary preferences.
The skulls of the living pandas and Ailuropoda baconi were so similar both likely chewed the same food: bamboo.
But the 2 million-year-old pygmy panda hadn't completed the adaptation, its skull suggesting it probably had a weaker bite than today's giant panda that would not have been able to break thick bamboo stems, so it may have supplemented its vegetarian diet with meat.
So while a genetic study has suggested the giant panda lineage lost the capacity to taste flesh 4.2 million years ago, at least one ancestor seemed to have had a hard time kicking the carnivorous habit.
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