Panda News from Foping
In collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Science, the Foping Nature Reserve, and other partners, we continue to move forward with our panda conservation efforts in the field.
The work is sometimes hard, but the setting is spectacular (the dense, wet mountainous forests of Foping) and the results are bringing real gains to our understanding of this once-enigmatic species.
Much of what we learn comes from tracking GPS-satellite collared pandas, enabling us to figure out where pandas go and what they do. When we’re not tracking pandas, we’re studying the habitat in which they live.
These efforts are yielding some key insights. One of these somewhat surprising insights is that pandas are more often associated with old-growth forests than previously believed.
We hypothesize that pandas need old growth trees to use as birthing dens to rear their cubs. We worked with key partners in the Chinese government to uncover this dependence on large trees, with sweeping implications for landscape conservation efforts going forward.
Pandas of course need more than big trees. As a bamboo specialist, they need reliable access to good quality bamboo. Our recent studies shows that bamboo quality fluctuates across seasons and that pandas appear to rely more heavily on low-quality bamboo at the end of winter and early spring, just when they need an energy boost for mating activities.
Perhaps as a consequence of this restricted energy budget, male pandas do not maintain high testosterone levels throughout the mating season, as is seen in some species. Testosterone is expensive and burns a lot of energy, and male pandas seem to wait for a fertile female before investing in a big testosterone surge to feed their competition with other males and courtship with females.
As one of only a few teams who have ever radio-tracked pandas (and the first to use GPS satellite technology), we are making new inroads into to panda conservation science, such as this first-ever study of panda hormones in wild pandas. We get this information from a precious resource we track down: panda droppings.
These feces are a gold mine of information. They tell us what habitats they are frequenting, what they are eating, their hormone levels, and even their genetic composition. We are using DNA from panda feces to estimate population size, determine panda movements and breeding patterns, and much more.
Fecal collection isn’t the only remotely collected data we are using. We also are establishing a network of video “traps” that catch pandas in action even when we are not there. This has been especially useful for documenting how panda mothers care for young in their dens.
Once one of the most poorly understood, yet best-known species, using new technologies and approaches, the mystery is gradually yielding to understanding…and even greater appreciation for this endearing animal.