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    Climate Change May Leave a Rare Panda Subspecies Without Food

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    When you think of pandas, you automatically think of bamboo, right? The image of a giant panda stuffing its rotund belly with bamboo fronds is iconic. But pandas’ favorite food might not be available in the future, as new research projects that climate change will make bamboo disappear from one of the pandas’ largest home ranges.

    A new paper published in Nature Climate Change suggests that climate change may have a drastic negative effect on the type of bamboo that pandas rely on in central China. The study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, features models that, even in a best-case scenario, shows bamboo die-offs being large enough in scale to render panda habitat inhospitable by the end of this century.

    The range in question lies in the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi Province, at the northern end of the pandas’ range. The Qinling pandas feed predominately on a trio of bamboo species that grow in the forest understory, and based off pollen and fossil records, the research team concluded that those species are very sensitive to changes in local climate. The bamboo in question are also slow to reproduce, and only flower every three decades or so. It’s unreasonable to think that those species can adapt in such a compressed time frame, and in the team’s models (which they note do involve some necessary simplification) those species will are all expected to decline, and possibly disappear, in the Qinling panda’s range in coming years. For conservationists, that’s rather important news.

    “Understanding impacts of climate change is an important way for science to assist in making good decisions,” Jack Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) and a study co-author, said in a statement. “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 Qinling panda population is notable because it has long been isolated from other panda regions by human development going back centuries. (In the map below, I believe the Qinling pandas are located in the top-most red spot, you can see how far they are from other groups.) The Qinling pandas, having been isolated for so long, are genetically different from other groups, which can be seen in the occasional brownish color of their coats. They were officially declared a subspecies in 2005, and there are about 275 wild pandas in the region, which is about a sixth of the total wild population left.

    Click to enlarge. By WWF, via

    The Qinling pandas’ geographic isolation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they’re quite isolated and locked in a region that has yet to see much development, which makes them an ideal target for conservation efforts — geographic boundaries have more or less already set them up in a preserve. At the same time, if changing climate sparks a bamboo die-off — or even if the bamboo’s range shifts along with the weather — the Qinling pandas don’t have many escape options.

    It’s important to note that the study doesn’t say that climate change will kill off all the pandas, as some headlines I’ve seen suggest. Rather, it shows that a specific subpopulation that’s stuck in a particular range (thanks to human development) is likely to lose its main source of food. Of course, the distinction is no less depressing.

    The study is key because it shows yet again how changing climate can lead to ecosystem collapse. Plants that like a narrow set of conditions are often good at moving to where those conditions exist; if, say, it gets too hot for the bamboo where they are now, their range may shift towards cooler regions. But just because one species shifts doesn’t mean others can, as is the case with the Qinling pandas, who can’t exactly waltz through a city to get to a new home. Also, they certainly aren’t the only animals reliant on understory bamboo, and if the bamboo’s region shifts away, what else is going to move in? At the very least, the loss of bamboo means the local ecosystem will experience a big shakeup.

    But the Qinling pandas are the key story here, especially because pandas are one of those halo species that receives a disproportionately-enormous amount of conservation funding as compared to other endangered plants and animals. If the viability of the Qinling’s pandas habitat is going to decline, and they’re blocked from migrating, conservationists will have to look at efforts more permanent than just trying to protect the Qinling pandas as they are. It’d be a drastic move, but that could mean transporting Qinling pandas into other ranges, which has the added negative effect of shrinking what habitat giant pandas have left. But if the Qinling pandas’ food ends up disappearing, inaction would likely mean they’d die out.

    Top image via

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.