For pandas, too much suitable habitat can be a problem

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September 20 (UPI) – Pandas are notoriously slow breeders. That’s why it’s a problem when pandas get too comfortable.

According to a new study published on Monday in the journal Conservation Biology, pandas can become complacent and move around less if their range is filled with ideal habitat.

Pandas need to move to find mates and make the next generation of pandas. As such, pandas benefit when their home base also features not-so-pleasant habitat.

This is good news for conservation managers, who can now lower their standards. Research suggests that human-panda cohabitation may not be as difficult as previously thought.

“This work gives hope for balancing the needs of ecological sustainability and human well-being,” Jianguo ‘Jack’ Liu, co-author of the study, said in a press release.

“Our results show that it is possible for pandas and humans to thrive in coupled human and natural systems,” said Liu, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University.

Naturally, most conservation studies – of pandas and other endangered species – have focused on threats to suitable habitat, including fragmentation. Animals need resources to survive and space to move around in order to maintain healthy levels of genetic diversity.

Roads and deforestation can deplete natural resources and prevent an animal from diversifying in search of new territories and new mates.

Conservation scientists have been looking for ways to connect the remaining fragments of habitat so that endangered animals can roam more freely. But according to the latest research, human development and fragmentation aren’t the only things that keep a panda from moving.

Pandas are also more likely to stay where they are when their habitat is too welcoming.

When studying genetic diversity among panda populations in China, researchers found that gene flow was greatest when 80 percent of a given landscape had suitable habitat.

“Contrary to the potential interpretation of our results, maximizing the amount of habitat in a landscape can be bad for connectivity,” said lead author of the study, Thomas Connor.

He said, however, that the research should not be seen as an excuse to avoid restoring the panda’s habitat – maximizing the habitat in a given area will not thwart connectivity.

“I think our research suggests a message of hope,” said Conner, who recently received his doctorate from CSIS at Michigan State.

“We can effectively manage panda populations by conserving and restoring habitat at intermediate levels. In other words, we don’t have to create perfect habitat to continue protecting pandas,” Connor said, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley.


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