Sunshine's droppings could shed light on panda diet mystery

EDINBURGH: Britain's only giant pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, are taking part in an experiment to find out whether the famously faddy breed really does only eat shoots and leaves.

The Edinburgh zoo pair, whose names mean Sweetie and Sunshine in English, are donating their droppings to enable scientists to discover more about their eating habits and thereby help conserve pandas in the wild.

Despite their reputation as picky eaters, previous work has suggested that pandas may enjoy as many as 60 different species of bamboo and could possibly even eat other plant species, fungi and animals, the zoo said in a statement.

"It is already widely accepted that all species of bamboo are not the same to the giant panda ... and the precise species consumed might vary according to individual requirements, availability, season or location," it added.

"However, there remains a huge gap in knowledge regarding exactly what they eat and when they eat it and we have almost no information on what or why species other than bamboo are eaten."

The pampered pair arrived in the Scottish capital to great fanfare in 2011 on a 10-year loan from China.

The zoo had been hoping Tian Tian would produce a cub but three attempts at artificial insemination, the most recent last August, have so far failed.

Droppings, or "scats," from the pair and from other pandas will now be subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

"Next generation sequencing technologies will be used to investigate the DNA contained in panda scats to identify exactly what has been eaten and even which panda has eaten it," said molecular ecologist Dr Linda Neaves, head of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) research team.

She added: "These methods have the potential to overcome many of the problems that have been restricting our understanding and allow us to investigate and quantify the extent of variation in diet and contributing factors such as sex, season and availability."

The RBGE research will be carried out with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.