Pandas’ home range may move as climate changes

Warming might force animals’ food source, bamboo, to higher elevations

China’s famous Qinling pandas may run out of their favorite food by the end of this century. Scientists have simulated how three bamboo species native to central China’s Qinling Mountains might move around as climate changes. And the news is bad for hungry pandas: All three plant species shrink in range.

FOOD SHORTAGE Giant pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains may find fewer bamboo shoots to eat by the end of this century thanks to climate change. Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Bamboo, pandas’ dietary staple, is vulnerable to change because the plants take a long time to reproduce and can’t spread their seeds very far. Mao-Ning Tuanmu and his colleagues at Michigan State University in East Lansing mapped the climate conditions best suited to three bamboo species in the Qinling Mountains, home to some 270 pandas, or about 17 percent of the total wild population.

The scientists then took four popular climate simulations and calculated how conditions would change throughout the Qinling region. The results suggest that areas suited to bamboo growth would shift to higher elevations and become more isolated from the surrounding areas.

Maps of different scenarios for bamboo survival revealed that if the bamboo species manage to spread well and temperature increases stay small, then “a considerable amount of panda habitat is projected to persist over the entire century,” the scientists write online November 11 in Nature Climate Change.

But more likely is a fragmenting of panda habitat and overall bamboo shortages.

Scientists need to pay more attention, the team writes, to how changes in one part of the ecosystem (like bamboo) affect others within the same ecosystem (like pandas).

Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.

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