BEIJING, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Giant pandas survive on a very un-bear-like diet of hard-to-digest bamboo because they carry around digestive helpers in their gut, Chinese researchers say.
While pandas are closely related to meat-eating bears, their vegetarian diet consists almost exclusively of bamboo that is full of hard-to-digest cellulose.
Most mammals lack the ability to break down cellulose.
"If fully degraded, cellulose can contribute nearly half of the calories in bamboo," researcher Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told LiveScience.com in an e-mail. "However, because cellulose is very difficult to be digested, the real percent of the calories of cellulose in bamboo available for giant pandas is very low."
So how do panda's survive on a steady diet of bamboo? It's all down to bacteria, the researchers said.
Their studies found that panda guts are full of cellulose-degrading bacteria.
"It is highly possible that it is this kind of bacterium [that] plays an essential role in the degradation of cellulose of the giant panda," Fuwen said.
The bacteria, along with a strong jaw and thumb-like bones on their paws, enables the pandas to gather, eat and digest bamboo and the cellulose within it, the researchers said.