Rare and endangered after surviving for eight million years, the giant panda may have moved a step away from extinction after scientists completed sequencing its genome.

A group of experts from China, Britain, Canada the United States and Hong Kong have learned, through drawing and assembling the genome sequence of the bear-like creature, that the animal is somewhat akin to dogs and even humans — but very different from mice.

Wang Jun, with the Beijing Genomics Institute's branch in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said: "By sequencing the giant panda genome we've laid the genetic and biological foundation for us to gain a deeper understanding of the peculiar species."

Scientists may be closer to understanding why pandas eat bamboo — even though their digestive systems appear to be better suited to a carnivorous diet — why they have those iconic black circles around their eyes and why adult pandas are so huge but the cubs weigh only one percent of the mothers' weight.

Above all, the new information could help scientists to learn why pandas produce so few offspring.

"It will help genetically explain why giant pandas have poor reproductive abilities, so that scientists can help them deliver more cubs," said Wang.

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