ScienceShot: Warming World Is Shrinking Panda Habitats

Chen Wu/flickr/Wikimedia Commons

ScienceShot: Warming World Is Shrinking Panda Habitats

Nature reserves have been helping giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) struggle to survive in the Chinese wilderness for more than 30 years, but a new study shows that won’t be enough to save the animals from climate change. Suitable habitats for giant pandas depend largely on the availability of bamboo, because they eat little else. As the world warms, however, it’s becoming too hot and wet for bamboo to grow in habitats like the Qinling Mountains, home to 17% of the world’s giant panda population. Researchers say bamboo will grow only in summer temperatures between 9°C and 17°C and rainfall of about 900 to 1200 mm per year. Global warming is causing both to go up in the Qinling Mountains, reducing the range of areas that meet these requirements. In order to find food, giant pandas will have to venture up the mountains to higher elevations and to the northwest, the few places where it will be cooler and drier, but also away from current protected zones. To make things worse, giant pandas are picky about the places they picnic, preferring to live on both sunnier south-facing slopes and as far away from encroaching human disturbances as possible, which further limits their habitat range. With all these factors taken together, suitable habitats for giant pandas in the Qinling Mountains will shrink by as much as 62% or about 1444 km2 by 2100, the team will report in an upcoming issue of Ecological Modelling. And that in turn will lead to a potential loss of 12% of the world’s pandas by the end of the century. Scientists are now looking into how climate change might affect panda habitats in other reserves.

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