Friday, 14 January 2011

Panda news update

It’s been quite a week for pandas.

“We are still struggling to fully understand the panda’s ecological requirements.”

This is pretty much how the latest panda paper (out this week in Biology Letters) kicks off. After 30 years of research on wild pandas, it is rather surprising that there is still uncertainty over what pandas really want, but there you go. As I’ve said before, there’s little about pandas that’s black and white. Even the pelage is a little bit brown (and more so if you’re a panda from the Qinling Mountains).

Up until now, there best evidence seemed to suggest that the slope of hillside was something for panda conservationists to pay attention to, with pandas avoiding the steepest inclines. The paper by Wei Fuwen of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests this isn’t particularly important. By analysing “the largest, landscape-level dataset on panda habitat use”, he and his colleagues show that bamboo and old forests are by far the best predictors of panda presence. The bamboo should come as no surprise, of course, but the pandas’ preference for old forest is an important finding.

The authors speculate on why pandas like old forests. Perhaps the bamboo beneath them is more nutritious, or maybe it’s only in this particular habitat that mothers can find good dens to rear their cubs. This is clearly going to be the focus of further study. In the meantime, the main finding in this paper does pose a problem for anyone hoping to connect up fragments of bamboo forest. If you fashion corridors from newly planted trees and stick in a few stands of bamboo, the pandas will probably not use them. Tricky.

Also this week, it was announced that Edinburgh Zoo is to get pandas. It’s taken about five years of collaboration at a scientific level and almost the same at a diplomatic level. When I spoke to the PR agency representing Edinburgh Zoo, I was pleasantly surprised to come away with answers for my questions. Rather than the pandas being a gift from China, as the Chinese would like to portray it and as many media outlets dutifully reported, the pandas are on loan along the same lines as others (with the Chinese currently setting the annual fee at $500,000 per pair). The rumour is that the Edinburgh Zoo scientists may choose bamboo genetics as their research topic, which would be mighty interesting. And it’s expected the animals will arrive in September (to steal the thunder from WWF’s 50th anniversary celebrations perhaps?).

I was interviewed for a feature on the BBC website about why we love pandas and asked to write something along the same lines for the Guardian.

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