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Bamboo-munching Giant Panda also has a sweet tooth, scientists find

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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Giant pandas eat plenty of veggies, but apparently they like dessert, too.

Scientists studying the endangered black-and-white bears said on Thursday that while pandas almost exclusively eat bamboo, which contains only tiny amounts of sugars, they showed a strong preference for natural sweeteners in an experiment.

The researchers also examined panda DNA and found a match to the same “sweet receptor” gene that humans possess that underpins their ability to taste sugars.

Sweeter foods like fruit may have been part of the natural diet of pandas before human activities helped drive the animals into their current mountainous habitat where those foods are scarce, the researchers said.

“Giant pandas love sweets,” said behavioral geneticist author Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who led the study published in the journal PLOS

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“We are a bit surprised. However, given the anecdotal evidence that they like apples, sweet potato and so on in captivity, we are not completely surprised,” added Monell molecular biologist Peihua Jiang, another of the researchers.

Pandas, the rarest species of bear, reside primarily in bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China. Understanding what type of food pandas prefer may help determine what nutrients can be used to supplement bamboo in their diet as part of efforts to conserve them, Jiang said.

The study was conducted as part of long-term research aimed at understanding how taste preferences and diet selection are affected by taste receptor genes.

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The researchers wondered if pandas were able to taste sweet stuff because while pandas are plant eaters, their ancestors were meat-eaters. Many strict carnivores have lost their sweet-tasting receptor gene, called Tas1r2, and show no preferences for sweet-tasting compounds.

For instance, their previous research showed that any type of cat, from house cats to tigers, cannot taste sweets and, thus, do not like them.

Their experiments involved eight giant pandas at the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Research Center in China. The youngest was 3 years old and the oldest was 22.

The bears were given two bowls of liquid and permitted to drink for five minutes. One was filled with plain water. The other contained water mixed with one of six natural sugars: fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose.

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The pandas liked all the sugar solutions better than plain water, especially fructose and sucrose. “They often emptied the bowl containing sugary solution,” Jiang said.

The researchers then did the same tests with five artificial sweeteners, but the pandas were far less interested in those.

Pandas previously lived in lowland areas, but human activities like agriculture, forest destruction and development exiled them to their current mountain terrain.

“We cannot travel back in time to understand what animals ate before their habitats were disturbed by mankind. But we can look at their DNA and their taste preferences and make inferences about their ancient diet,” Reed said.

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“Giant pandas’ ancient diet may have included more foods than just bamboo – perhaps fruits, hence the sweet tooth. It may be that bamboo is an every-day food for giant pandas, but when sweeter foods are available they go for them,” Reed added.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Russians to prod Putin on poverty and his personal life as his ratings tank

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Russians are set to ask President Vladimir Putin about growing poverty at home and tensions abroad during an annual televised phone-in Thursday, which comes following a fall in his approval ratings.

The leader is also likely to face a degree of grilling on his personal life, according to questions submitted by the public online ahead of the live show.

Set to be held for the 17th time since Putin came to power in 1999, the show starts at 0900 GMT and usually lasts several hours.

Ahead of the carefully choreographed show, more than one million questions had been submitted, organisers told Russian news agencies.

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Trump could turn on Hope Hicks just like Michael Cohen: Trump family biographer warns

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Trump family biographer Emily Jane Fox explained that she didn't think that the president would turn on long-time aide Hope Hicks, but then again, it was the same thought about Michael Cohen as well.

In a panel discussion about Hicks' testimony during MSNBC's Brian Williams' Wednesday show, Fox recalled that Micahel Cohen once said that he would take a bullet for the president. Once it appeared that Trump would throw him under the bus, Cohen began looking for a way out.

The same scenario seems to be happening with Hicks now.

"She works at new Fox, which is a company run by a Murdoch son," Fox said. "It's a company that's brand new. She's the head of communications there. And there are shareholders who would take issue with the fact that a senior member of this company is being put in this situation and being thrust on the world stage."

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Trump jumped to Speaker Pelosi’s defense in marathon Fox News interview

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In a strange twist, President Donald Trump appeared to defend House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Wednesday.

Hannity began by saying to Trump that he believes Pelosi has lost control of her own party, as officials like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) continue to call for impeachment.

"I say Nancy Pelosi is the speaker in name only," Hannity told Trump, calling Ocasio-Cortez the real start.

But what Trump said was the unusual point.

"I think Nancy Pelosi probably has control of it, I hear different things, but I think she does," Trump said, appearing to defend the Speaker. "She knows what she's doing. We will see how it all comes out."

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