Thursday, 15 June 2017

Cool retreats are needed to save giant panda from warmer weather

14 June 2017

By Lou Del Bello

Building a network of artificial, cool retreats in the forest may be the last resort for China’s vulnerable giant pandas, as climate change threatens the iconic mammal with extinction.

New data about habitat temperature and panda distribution, collected across six mountains along the Chinese edge of the Tibetan plateau, confirm what climate models have been suggesting for a while: the animal is struggling to survive as its natural habitat gets hotter.

Researchers found that areas within the pandas’ habitat, that were exposed to a potential heat stress of up to 30 °C had increased from 332 to 4482 square kilometres over the past 40 years.

Guozhen Shen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, says previous studies showed that 25°C is the threshold for giant pandas to suffer heat stress, since they are adapted to cool mountain climes.

A consistently warm environment can cause dehydration and metabolic problems in giant pandas, also affecting their reproduction abilities and their cubs’ health. To escape the heat, they have to move to cooler mountainous areas where foraging becomes more difficult.
Bamboo boom or bust?

Their specific bamboo diet could be affected too, although scientists are not sure how this will pan out. While there is a risk that the bamboo might mass-bloom and die, there is also a chance that it will simply grow stronger and more abundant, says Shen.

Artificial microhabitats could shield pandas, at least in the short term, from these and other heat related impacts. According to the researchers, they could look like a patchwork of retreats and maternity dens built close to streams.

The constructions would take advantage of the natural features of each forest patch to protect the animals from the sun and enhance the number and comfort of cool spaces. For example, they could have narrow entrances to keep the heat out and interior chambers offering respite to adults and cubs, which are particularly prone to illness under extreme heat.

The researchers added that planting more trees and bamboo in selected areas could also provide additional food and canopy cover. Building a significant number of such oases around the pandas’ distribution area would also allow them move more easily across vast areas.

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