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Dec. 3, 2014

Tinkering with the Tao of pandas

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

Up 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 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. 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.

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 kilometers to which the animals have been relegated.

"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."

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.

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.”

The paper is published in Ursus, the journal of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.

Besides Liu and Hull, the article was written by Gary Roloff, MSU associate professor of fisheries and wildlife; Jindong Zhang, a CSIS postdoctoral research assistant; Wei Liu, a CSIS alumnus; Hemin Zhang, Shiqiang Zhou and Jinyan Huang of the China Center for Research and Conservation of the Giant Panda in Wolong; and Zhiyun Ouyang and Weihua Xu of the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and MSU AgBioResearch have supported the work.

By: Sue Nichols