Chinese Study: Habitat ‘Sweet Spot’ May Prevent Panda Inbreeding

Written by Madalyn Eglian
Published: September 21, 2021
Written by Madalyn Eglian
Published: September 21, 2021


In a new study out of China, researchers have made some significant discoveries linking habitat fragmentation and giant panda reproduction and ultimately conservation.

Giant pandas are one of the world’s most beloved species. Native to China’s temperate forests, this black and white mammal is part of the bear family. They primarily eat bamboo and take in 26-84 pounds per day. The giant panda is also the face of many conservation organizations due to their long stint on the endangered species list.

Though they were taken off the endangered species list, pandas are still a high risk group in the animal kingdom. This is due in part to their long mating ritual that doesn’t often result in a female bear’s pregnancy. However, this risk is also due to their diminishing habitats and food sources.

Habitat Fragmentation, Functional Connectivity, and Genetic Diversity

Habitat fragmentation, or the transformation of a large habitat into smaller patches, has long been a conversation in the conservation world. This is important because as habitats become more fragmented, conservationists need to consider the effects on inbreeding and functional connectivity.

Functional connectivity is the ability for animals to move between patches of fragmented habitats. This is essential for preventing inbreeding in endangered mammals as well as ensuring that the mammals have the resources they need to survive and thrive as a species.

By connecting resources, functional connectivity allows species to move and increase their genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is essential to species’ evolution and survival because it creates a more diversified species that supports a variety of genetic strengths.

Pandas need genetic diversity and functional connectivity in order to survive the consequences of habitat fragmentation. If isolated, they will not be able to breed nor eat.

Pandas and Habitat Fragmentation

This study offers hope for pandas despite the fragmentation that is currently happening in their environment. The researchers from the Wolong Nature Reserve have found the habitat sweet spot for pandas’ reproductive success.

In the study, researchers found that functional connectivity and genetic diversity increases as the percentage of habitat within their environment increases. This continues until the habitat reaches a proportion of 80% of the environment. At this point, the functional connectivity and genetic diversity decreases.

They collected this data with a series of fecal samples, controlled environments, and previous quantitative studies within panda habitats. By comparing this data from Wolong Nature Reserve with research conducted at Michigan State University, researchers were able to conclude that pandas can, in fact, thrive in imperfect environments.

The Good News For Panda Conservation

By concluding that pandas can thrive in imperfect environments, researchers can redirect conservation efforts by ensuring imperfect habitats will not be ignored when considering which environments to maintain for panda populations.

These findings will also encourage conservation sites to increase the functional connectivity between habitat patches by working to create ecological bridges. This would allow pandas to move between habitat patches, further diversifying their genetic pool and ensuring they will not run out of resources. 

Further than pandas, this study’s findings could help other conservation efforts with similarly vulnerable mammals. Understanding that these animals don’t need a perfect environment will eventually lead to a more productive allocation of conservation resources.