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Pandas can thrive in less-than-perfect environments

In their search to understand what makes a good wildlife habitat, conservation specialists from Michigan State University (MSU) surprisingly found that optimal conditions are not necessarily the best. They discovered that maximum gene flow in giant panda populations occurred not when the entire area in which they lived was habitable, but when only about 80 percent of it was.

According to a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology, animals should be happy enough to thrive in their habitat, but not so content that they will give up moving around in search of new mates. Being too happy within a habitat and thus unwilling to leave it increases the chances of inbreeding and thus cause a significant loss of genetic diversity.

In our contemporary world, many things can cause habitat disruptions, including humans building new roads and houses, wildfires burning forests, or climate change causing unsuitable temperature and precipitation patterns. In the past decades, scientists all over the globe have worried that habitat loss and fragmentation can be extremely damaging for animal populations.

However, by showing that ecological sustainability is not necessarily correlated with perfect habitat conditions, this new study offers a glimmer of hope for conservation experts. 

“As opposed to the potential interpretation of our results that maximizing the amount of habitat in a landscape can be bad for connectivity, I think that our research suggests a message of hope,” explained lead study author Thomas Connor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkley

“We can effectively manage panda populations by conserving and restoring habitat to intermediate levels. In other words, we don’t have to create perfect habitat to keep protecting pandas.” 

According to the researchers, the fact that very picky animals such as pandas – with their singular reliance on bamboo as a source of nourishment, a preference for cool temperatures and shallow slopes, and their shyness that drives them away from humans – can thrive in less-than-perfect habitats, makes this study highly relevant for other species too.

“This work provides hope to balance needs for ecological sustainability and human well-being,” concluded study co-author Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU. “Our results show it is possible for both pandas and humans to thrive across coupled human and natural systems.” 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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