Giant Pandas Threatened by Climate Change

First Posted: Nov 12, 2012 01:29 AM EST

The rarest member of the bear family, the panda's habitat is at the geographic and economic heart of China. The Pandas, already facing a decreasing forest cover, are now threatened by climate change which is affecting their staple food, bamboo.

The giant pandas mostly reside in the bamboo forests high in the mountains of western china. According to the World Wide Life, the pandas subsist mainly on bamboo, eating nearly 26 to 84 pounds of it everyday.

But scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences predict that the pandas will need to look for new means of survival. The reason being, the common species of bamboo that carpet the forest floors of prime panda habitat in northwestern China are succumbing to climate change and slowly dying off.

The extinction of bamboo would render the prime panda habitat inhospitable by the end of 21st century.

Bamboo is not only a survival aid factor for the giant pandas but also provides essential food and shelter for other wildlife, including endangered species like the ploughshare tortoise and purple-winged ground-dove.

According to the report, there is a very unusual reproductive cycle that is being displayed by bamboo, and can be a risky crop on which to stake survival. The species studied only flower and reproduce every 30 to 35 years, which limits the plants' ability to adapt to changing climate and can spell disaster for food supply.

In order to prove this, the scientists analyzed the possible scenarios of climate change in Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi Province. Nearly 275 wild pandas and 17 percent of other wild population dwell in the northern boundary of China's panda distributional range, the Qinling Mountains.

The subspecies of Giant Panda, the Qinlinh Panda that was first identified in 2004, differ in numerous ways from the Gaint panda. There are an estimated 200-300 Qinling Pandas in the wild. Their geographic isolation makes it particularly valuable for conservation, but vulnerable to climate change.

"Understanding impacts of climate change is an important way for science to assist in making good decisions," said Jianguo Jack Liu, director of MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and a study co-author. "Looking at the climate impact on the bamboo can help us prepare for the challenges that the panda will likely face in the future."

The rate at which these giant pandas get endangered is not completely dependent on nature but also human activity.  As the study's models predict, if large swaths of bamboo become unavailable, human development will prevent pandas from a clear, accessible path to the next meal source.

"The gaint panda population also is threatened by other human disturbances," said Mao-Ning Tuanmu, who recently finished his doctoral studies at CSIS and is now at Yale University. "Climate change is only one challenge for the giant pandas. But on the other hand, the giant panda is a special species. People put a lot of conservation resources in to them compared to other species. We want to provide data to guide that wisely."

The study is published in this week's International Journal Nature Climate Change.

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