This just in: Red pandas like candy!
That’s the latest from a group of researchers at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center. The team gave zoo animals a choice between plain water and water sweetened with either natural or artificial sugars as part of a study on the genetics of taste.
Ferrets, genets, meerkats, mongooses and lions shunned the artificial sugars. That was unsurprising — previous studies suggest that cats can’t taste sweets at all, thanks to a defect in their taste bud genes. But red pandas shocked everyone by guzzling water sweetened with aspartame.
This makes the red panda (also called lesser panda, cat bear, or firefox, though it’s actually most closely related to skunks and weasels) the first known non-primate to appreciate the sugar substitute.
Surprised scientists found no significant difference between the sweet receptors of animals that can and can’t taste aspartame. But they did find that red pandas’ sweet-tasting genes are different from all the other species tested, which might explain its weird fondness for NutraSweet. The research is in press in the Journal of Heredity.
The team suggests that this kind of research could help make better artificial sugars, making life sweeter for diabetics and dieters. But clearly the more pressing need is lollipops for baby pandas. (Warning: potentially dangerous levels of cute!)
Need more red panda? Continue reading this post, or the Red River Zoo in Fargo, North Dakota has a red panda blog.