Pandas: Good News!

Plus: Greenland uranium mine nixed. Insecticide spraying in Oregon. Southeast Asian marsh bird in need of help

Scientists find giant pandas have pathways to new habitats

Scientists have found encouraging news for the giant panda. Their population in the wild has increased slightly and, what’s more, findings indicate that the animals should be able to move into new habitat and further increase their numbers. 

Giant pandas are a curious creation. Yes, they are bears, and somehow through natural selection, they wound up looking like bicolored ragdolls. Unlike other bears, their diet is vegetarian and extremely limited. They eat only bamboo. OK, they will eat 42 different species of bamboo, but even still, it’s all bamboo. As there is very little nutritional value to bamboo, the pandas need to eat a lot of it, between 20 and 88 pounds per day.

Giant pandas are mostly found in the mountainous regions of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces in China. All three provinces are in central China and skirt the highlands west of the Gobi Desert. There may be as many as 3000 giant pandas in the wild, but many of them are concentrated in small patches.

Each species of the pandas’ sole food source, bamboo, grows, flowers, then dies in life cycles that span 20 to 40 years. After the bamboo dies off, it may take four to ten years before it starts to grow again. Given these life cycles and lag time for regeneration, growing populations of pandas may overgraze the bamboo, jeopardizing their own and the bamboo’s existence.

The researchers examined whether or not the pandas can move beyond their present areas to other environments that can support them. They concentrated on the Shaanxi region and the five nature reserves there. The five nature reserves have similar climates and environmental conditions, warm and humid in summer due to monsoons that come in from the southeast. There is a mixture of forest types, depending on elevation, starting with deciduous broadleaf at lower elevations transitioning to coniferous at the highest elevation. And of course, they all have forests of bamboo.

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The Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi were heavily logged in the 1970s through the 1990s, with reforestation efforts starting in 1998 when logging was banned in the area. Although the forest remains fragmented, it is believed that the reforestation has abetted the rebound of the giant pandas.

Recent surveys counted 273 pandas in Shaanxi. Scientists found that the populations of pandas are concentrated in three patches in the Changqing and Foping Nature Reserves. There are also six smaller patches in these two reserves and in the Laoxiancheng Nature Reserve. Using ecological modeling, the scientists identified eight additional areas where pandas could potentially thrive.

Although pandas may be able to thrive in an adjacent ecosystem, if the pathway to their new home is obstructed, that ecosystem may as well be on the moon. Obstructions can be natural—mountains, rivers, lakes—or the work of humans, such as highways, cities, or habitat that has been degraded by mining, logging, or other human activity.

Comparing the geography between where the pandas are and where they could make their new homes, the researchers identified several factors that could affect the suitability of a passageway or corridor for the pandas to travel. These included elevation, slope, existing vegetation, presence of bamboo, as well as distances to rivers, roads, and other human disturbances.

The researchers mapped these factors and, using mathematical models based on physics—specifically the current in a wire and voltage across a resistor—they were able to identify 14 corridors the pandas could use to migrate into these new habitats. Despite their looks and charm, pandas are not known for their smarts. We hope they find the corridors and start moving into new territory that seems made just for them.

This research was supported by Tsinghua University in Beijing and Shaanxi Institure of Zoology, as well as the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute. Results were published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution in April.

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Other News

Brief summaries of important happenings. Click the links for more information.

Australian Uranium Mine Nixed in Greenland

An Australian mining company has been trying to build a uranium mine in Greenland for some time. But on the sixth of April, the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community for the People) Party, which had campaigned on opposition to the mine, won the national elections.

Now, community and environmental groups in Australia are urging Greenland Mineral, the mining company, to honor the results of the election. (Australian Conservation Foundation)

U.S. Department of Agriculture to spray insecticide on 30,000 acres of Oregon wildlife habitat

With the goal of killing grasshoppers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning on spraying 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat with insecticide. The area is grazed by livestock, and the grasshoppers eat the same forage as the cattle.

The area includes Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert, and the Pueblo Mountains, all of which are considered biological hotspots.

While the insecticide is intended to kill grasshoppers, other insects could be harmed. The area is home to between 700 and 800 species of bees, as well as Monarch butterflies. Monarchs have declined all over North America by 99.9 percent since the 1980s. (Xerxes Society)

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More conservation work needed for the masked finfoot

Once found throughout Southeast Asia, the masked finfoot bird is now only breeding in some areas of Bangladesh and Cambodia. Destruction of the bird’s riparian habitat is to blame for its plight.

It seems that conservation advice, which includes restricting human access to the birds’ colonies, restricting the use of gillnets, and more protection of wetlands, has been ignored over the last 20 years. BirdLife International and other conservation organizations promise renewed efforts for the bird. (BirdLife International)

For more environmental news that doesn’t make the headlines, follow me on Twitter @EcoScripsit.