Giant Pandas Are Not an Evolutionary cul-de-sac: Evidence from Multidisciplinary Research

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Abstract

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is one of the world’s most endangered mammals and remains threatened by environmental and anthropogenic pressure. It is commonly argued that giant pandas are an evolutionary cul-de-sac because of their specialized bamboo diet, phylogenetic changes in body size, small population, low genetic diversity, and low reproductive rate. This notion is incorrect, arose from a poor understanding or appreciation of giant panda biology, and is in need of correction. In this review, we summarize research across morphology, ecology, and genetics to dispel the idea, once and for all, that giant pandas are evolutionary dead-end. The latest and most advanced research shows that giant pandas are successful animals highly adapted to a specialized bamboo diet via morphological, ecological, and genetic adaptations and coadaptation of gut microbiota. We also debunk misconceptions around population size, population growth rate, and genetic variation. During their evolutionary history spanning 8 My, giant pandas have survived diet specialization, massive bamboo flowering and die off, and rapid climate oscillations. Now, they are suffering from enormous human interference. Fortunately, continued conservation effort is greatly reducing impacts from anthropogenic interference and allowing giant panda populations and habitat to recover. Previous ideas of a giant panda evolutionary cul-de-sac resulted from an unsystematic and unsophisticated understanding of their biology and it is time to shed this baggage and focus on the survival and maintenance of this high-profile species.

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