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Panda Poop Provides Clues to Their Tummy Troubles

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Come on, Le Le. That's going to bother your stomach. Photo via Candace Williams

Nature is a brutal teacher. To survive harsh environments, predators, and disease, Earth’s plants and animals have evolved some spectacular abilities and traits. And then there are pandas, who seem to lack any sense of self-preservation whatsoever. Their disinterest in mating is well-known. Less known is the folly of their insistence on eating bamboo—a food they literally cannot digest. Now researchers have found that that same diet may be a trigger for frequent and serious gastrointestinal illness. The report was published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

"Gastrointestinal diseases are a major cause of mortality in wild and captive pandas but scientists understand very little about their digestive process," said Mississippi State University chemist and co-author Ashli Brown-Johnson in a press statement.

The illness affects not only pandas’ eating habits but also their already tenuous reproduction. The cycle looks something like this: During the heat of mating season, pandas switch from eating bamboo stalks to eating the leaves. Around this same time, many pandas get sick and stop eating. They poop out gooey globs called mucoids, and expectant female pandas may lose their pregnancies.

To understand how the cycle began, Brown-Johnson and her colleagues examined the feeding habits, poop, and mucoids of two pandas at the Memphis Zoo. Both Le Le (male) and Ya Ya (female) have been under mealtime supervision since 2003, so the zoo had already amassed a lot of information about their health and behavior.

The data showed that, like other pandas both captive and wild, Le Le and Ya Ya changed their diets drastically in the summer. In winter and spring, leaves accounted for less than 1 percent of their food. In July and August, nearly 60 percent of mealtime was spent eating leaves, and both bears began passing more mucoids, expressing pain, and regularly refusing food.

That's a serious problem, since they’re not exactly loading up on nutrients to begin with. Pandas are related to carnivores and built like carnivores and have teeth and guts like carnivores, but what do they eat? Bamboo. The bears consume up to one-third of their body weight in the woody plant every day, but it pretty much passes straight through them, since their stomachs can do almost nothing to break it down. Healthy panda poop (shown here) looks a lot like chunks of fresh bamboo:

The mucoids are a lot less pleasing to the eye, and, according to first author Candace Williams, they smell “ghastly.”

Zoo staff wrapped up samples of both types of bear waste in tinfoil and shipped them to the lab. The research team ran DNA tests on the bears’ fresh-looking fecal samples (five from Ya Ya, 13 from Le Le) and smelly mucoids (one from Ya Ya, 5 from Le Le), looking for differences in their gut bacteria. They found quite a few. First, the pandas’ healthy poop had much lower bacterial diversity than fecal samples from other plant-eaters. In general, the more diversity an animal has in its gut flora, the healthier it will be, so this alone was concerning.

Oddly, the poop’s bacterial diversity increased as summer and mucoid season approached, and peaked inside the mucoids themselves. The species of bacteria in the mucoids were perhaps the most telling: some, like Actinobacteria, are known for causing GI disease in people, while others are typically found in gut lining. 

"What we think might be happening is that their diet is causing a strong internal reaction, leading to an inflammatory response," said Suen. "Pandas are basically shedding their gastrointestinal lining to allow for the replacement of those microbes. It's kind of like resetting the microbiome." Unfortunately, that reset has a cost.

With just two bears and 24 samples, this was a small study, but it’s a start. "Until recently, the gut microbiome hasn't really played a role in the management of animals," said Williams. "Having a balanced gut is important, and it's also important that we know these things, especially about such unique animals."

Unique is right.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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