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Giant Panda Diet Requires Microorganisms to Digest Bamboo

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on October 22, 2011

Nature: “Microbes help giant pandas overcome meat-eating heritage: Researchers find the microorganisms that help bears digest bambooGiant panda is big on bamboo but doesn’t get much bang for the bite.

The giant panda’s diet is predominantly bamboo. Being a bear, the panda therefore leaves evolutionists with some confusion about its non-carnivorous dietary preferences. The giant panda consumes about 12.5 kilograms of bamboo daily, but ultimately digests only about 17% of this.1

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have conducted a sophisticated analysis of panda output to discover “evolutionary adaptations” for its “unusually narrow diet.”2

Evolutionists maintain that evolving animals “lost the ability”3 to produce many digestive enzymes and other important compounds and therefore developed the symbiotic relationships with gut flora familiar to us. They see the long digestive tracts typical of most herbivores, especially ruminants, as further evolutionary adaptations.

Yet the giant panda has a short digestive tract typical of carnivorous bears. Previous studies have only found ordinary bear-like gut flora in the panda, not the kind of bacteria that normally help herbivores digest plant cellulose. Furthermore, the inefficiency of the panda’s digestion of cellulose condemns it to spend most of its time eating.

By sequencing DNA extracted from fecal material from both wild and captive giant pandas, ecologist Fuwen Wei’s team found that pandas actually do harbor many cellulose-metabolizing bacterial species. Perhaps due to the short length of the intestine, however, their digestive process remains inefficient.

The researchers assert, “Access to dietary resources shapes animal evolution,” and they conclude, “It is becoming increasingly clear that giant pandas possess a suite of evolutionary adaptations. . . . Harboring of cellulose and hemicellulose-digesting microbes in the gut of the giant panda. . . likely have arisen as a result of adapting to a highly fibrous bamboo diet within the constraints imposed by the panda’s innate carnivore-like digestive system.”4

Not everyone agrees that the iconic panda is the perfect example of evolution.

Not everyone agrees that the iconic panda is the perfect example of evolution. Cornell microbiologist Ruth Ley comments, “I see a very badly adapted animal. The main way the panda has adapted to the low-quality diet is not via microbiota, like the vast majority of other animals, but by eating 15 hours per day.” Furthermore, dietary resources in combination with natural selection and other factors do influence the animal adaptations, but they do not prompt the evolutionary emergence of new kinds of creatures.

From a biblical perspective, we must point out that the presumption that animals like pandas and other bears initially ate meat is erroneous. According to Genesis 1:29–30, God originally designed all animals, even bears, to eat plants—not meat. Death and bloodshed did not enter the world until after Adam sinned. Since God designed the original creation to be “very good,” we can be confident that this vegetarian design was sustainable indefinitely.

The authors write, “Early on, animals lost the ability to synthesize many key compounds.”5 This statement does not exactly fit the evolutionary idea of progress. Creationists have no difficulty with the fact that, in the 6,000 years of history since Adam’s sin brought a curse (Romans 8:20–22) upon the natural world, some genetic information has been damaged or lost. Such loss may explain some dietary peculiarities seen in the present world. However, there is no reason to presuppose symbiotic relationships with gut flora needed to evolve or were even a result of sin’s curse.

God designed microorganisms along with rest of creation to be useful, not harmful. Microorganisms throughout the natural world serve as an interface to make needed chemicals available to living organisms and to recycle organic material. In particular, gut flora in animals and humans “assist with extracting nutrients from food and key compounds from the environment, and also synthesize necessary metabolic compounds.”6

The panda is not an evolutionary product. And whether the apparent inefficiency of its digestive system is a product of sin’s curse or just the way God designed the creature, we can be confident that God created microorganisms like those that symbiotically keep the panda going to fulfill many useful purposes in our world. Read more about it in chapter 31: “What About Bacteria?” in The New Answers Book 3 and at More Abundant than Stars

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