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Giant Pandas May Run Out Of Bamboo Due To Climate Change

New models are predicting that climate change may kill off swaths of bamboo that pandas need to survive.

| November 15, 2012 | In the Lab

AsianScientist (Nov. 15, 2012) – China’s endangered wild pandas may need new dinner options – and quickly – based on models that indicate climate change may kill off swaths of bamboo that pandas need to survive.

In the latest issue of the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences give comprehensive forecasts of how a changing climate may affect the most common species of bamboo that carpet the forest floors of prime panda habitat in northwestern China.

The scientists studied possible scenarios of climate change in the Qinling Mountains in China’s Shaanxi Province, home to around 275 wild pandas, about 17 percent of the remaining wild population.

The Qinling pandas have been isolated due to the thousands-year history of human habitation around the mountain range. They vary genetically from other giant pandas – some have a more brownish color – and 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 (CSIS) 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.”

Bamboo is a vital part of forest ecosystems, being not only the sole menu item for giant pandas, but also providing essential food and shelter for other wildlife, including other endangered species like the ploughshare tortoise and purple-winged ground-dove.

But bamboo can be a risky crop to stake survival on, with an unusual reproductive cycle. The species studied only flower and reproduce every 30 to 35 years, which limits the plants’ ability to adapt to a changing climate and can spell disaster for a food supply.

The team constructed models using field data on bamboo locality, multiple climate projections, historic data on precipitation and temperature ranges, and greenhouse gas emission scenarios to evaluate how three dominant bamboo species would fare in the Qinling Mountains.

Even the most optimistic scenarios show that bamboo die-offs would effectively cause the Qinling Mountains to become inhospitable by the end of the 21st century.

The pandas’ fate will be at the hands of not only nature, but also humans. If, as the study’s models predict, large swaths of bamboo become unavailable, then human development may inevitably prevent pandas from a clear, accessible path to the next meal source.

“The giant panda population also is threatened by other human disturbances,” said Mao-Ning Tuanmu, the first author on the paper. “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 models also points the way for proactive planning to protect areas that have a better climatic chance of providing adequate food sources, and the building of natural “bridges” to allow pandas an escape hatch from bamboo famine.

“We will need proactive actions to protect the current giant panda habitats,” Tuanmu said. “We need time to look at areas that might become panda habitat in the future, and to think now about maintaining connectivity of areas of good panda habitat and habitat for other species. What will be needed is speed.”

The article can be found at: Tuanmu MN et al. (2012) Climate change impacts on understory bamboo species and giant pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains.

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Source: MSU.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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