AboutZoos, Since 2008


Tin­ker­ing with the Tao of pan­das, they’re not so picky after all

pub­lished 07 Decem­ber 2014 | mod­i­fied 07 Decem­ber 2014

Good news on the panda front: Turns out they’re not quite as del­i­cate — and picky — as thought.

Panda eating bamboo WolongUp until now, infor­ma­tion gleaned from 30 years worth of sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture sug­gested that pan­das were inflex­i­ble about habi­tat. Those con­clu­sions mor­phed into con­ven­tional wis­dom and thus have guided pol­icy in China. But Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity (MSU) research shows that the endan­gered ani­mal is more resilient and flex­i­ble than pre­vi­ously believed.

Vanessa Hull is a post­doc­toral research asso­ciate at MSU’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inte­gra­tion and Sus­tain­abil­ity (CSIS). She has spent three years stalk­ing giant pan­das in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve. Given the pan­das’ elu­sive nature, Hull had a lot of down time wink.

So she bided her time plow­ing through lit­er­a­ture on panda habi­tat selec­tion, dis­cov­er­ing incon­sis­ten­cies and lack of con­sen­sus on cru­cial mat­ters as sci­en­tists and pol­i­cy­mak­ers strug­gle to pro­tect the esti­mated 1,600 remain­ing wild giant pan­das in the 21,300 square kilo­me­tres to which the ani­mals have been rel­e­gated. The research find­ings are pub­lished in the Octo­ber issue of Ursus, the jour­nal of the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­a­tion for Bear Research and Management.

It’s excit­ing to see the flex­i­bil­ity pan­das have, or at least see that they are choos­ing areas I didn’t think could sup­port them
Vanessa Hull, lead author, Cen­ter For Sys­tems Inte­gra­tion and Sus­tain­abil­ity, Depart­ment of Fish­eries and Wildlife, Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity, USA »

Panda habi­tat selec­tion is a com­plex process that we are still try­ing to unravel,” said Jian­guo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Car­son Chair in Sus­tain­abil­ity and CSIS direc­tor. “Pan­das are a part of cou­pled human and nat­ural sys­tems where humans have changed so much in their habitat.”

Panda demands?
It has been thought that pan­das demanded a for­est with fairly gen­tle slope (eas­ier to mosey around in while seek­ing bam­boo) at a cer­tain ele­va­tion in orig­i­nal, old for­est, an abun­dance of bam­boo and plenty of dis­tance from peo­ple. These rec­om­men­da­tions, Hull said, come from often-​scant research because pan­das are dif­fi­cult to study.

Pan­das are dif­fi­cult to observe and fol­low in the wild; we’re always 10 steps behind them,” Hull said. “We don’t know why they’re there or where they were before and after. There’s a lot of guesswork.”

Hull and her col­leagues drew up analy­sis of all the research projects and sought to sep­a­rate stud­ies that focus on where pan­das live from stud­ies that exam­ine what kind of choices they make when mul­ti­ple types of habi­tat are avail­able. They dis­cov­ered that they may not be as picky as thought.

Sec­ondary for­est
The research shows, for instance, that pan­das are will­ing to live in sec­ondary forests — forests that have been logged and have regrown. They also don’t seem as selec­tive about slope and are will­ing to climb depend­ing on which of the many vari­eties of bam­boo is grow­ing, or what type of for­est it was in.

They also found that there is a com­plex rela­tion­ship between trees and bam­boo. Pan­das choose dif­fer­ent for­est types as places to spend their time, as long as bam­boo is available.

It’s excit­ing to see the flex­i­bil­ity pan­das have, or at least see that they are choos­ing areas I didn’t think could sup­port them,” Hull said. “It gives you hope. They’ve sur­vived through­out many chal­lenges over so many mil­lions of years; it would be sad to think humans came along and threw it all away. This also sug­gests we should stay on board and try to make things bet­ter for them.”

(Source: Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity news release, 03.12.2014)

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