Current estimates put the total panda population at less than 3,000
Giant pandas should be carnivores but changes to their genes mean they may no longer be able to taste meat, researchers have found.
Taste may also explain why the bears eat an almost exclusive diet of bamboo despite lacking the genes necessary for complete digestion of their food.
The discoveries have been made by a team of scientists, which includes Prof Mike Bruford from Cardiff University.
He said it may aid conservation efforts for the endangered species.
Professor Bruford of the Cardiff School of Biosciences worked with a Chinese-led team of international researchers.
He said the results had shed new light on some of the giant panda's unusual biological traits.
The team has successfully sequenced the panda genome for the first time.
He said: "The panda is a true bear and is a carnivore, so it possesses the genes necessary for being a meat-eater and yet its diet is almost exclusively herbivorous.
"This may suggest that it relies on microbes in its gut to digest bamboo rather than on anything in its genetic make-up.
"Taste is also important when it comes to the development of dietary habits."
He said they discovered mutations in the panda's genes which may affect its ability to taste meat.
Prof Bruford said it was a possible explanation for why a potential carnivore would rely on a strict bamboo diet.
He said the study also supported the potential for successful survival despite the small population size of the species.
In spite of the panda's low reproduction rates, it identified nearly all the reproduction genes critical for mammalian gonad function and development.
Professor Bruford added: "The panda is at high risk of extinction and current estimates put total population figures at less than 3,000.
"The study gives us a fuller understanding of the genetic basis of the panda's biology, and will contribute to disease control and conservation efforts."
The full study 'The sequence and de novo assembly of the giant panda genome', has been published by the Nature Journal.