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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 06:17 GMT 07:17 UK
Panda tests bring population hope
Photo: Naxun Zhang/Cardiff University
The giant panda population may be bigger than first thought
Scientists aiming to discover more about China's giant pandas have collected the animals' droppings to extract unique DNA profiles.

A team at Cardiff University analysed around 250 samples of panda droppings gathered from the Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan province.

Their findings suggest 66 pandas live in the reserve - more than twice the 27 previously thought to live there.

Scientists believe previous studies underestimated the numbers of pandas.

We can start to reconstruct the lifestyles of these animals without ever having to see them
Professor Michael Bruford

Professor Michael Bruford, who led the team, said although the panda population is believed to be higher than first thought, there was no room for complacency.

"Top whack the implications are that the population is 2,500 to 3,000 - but we are not talking about a massive population," he said.

Prof Bruford said the researchers used forensic techniques, similar to those employed by the police.

Previously, other research teams hunted for droppings and analysed the bite-size of partially-digested bamboo shoots within panda droppings.

This gave experts an idea of the bite-sizes of different pandas but it is thought the methodology may have underestimated results.

DNA analysis

"A panda can defecate 40 times a day so there's loads of poo to find," said Prof Bruford.

"They also secrete a mural layer which gives an insight into the cells in their guts and we can extract their DNA from it.

"When we found the same profile in a number of different locations at different times, it showed how mobile the pandas are," he said.

Experts were also able to look at the general health of the panda by looking at their gut parasites.

They could also find how what sex the panda was, how long they have been there and how far the pandas roamed.

"We can start to reconstruct the lifestyles of these animals without ever having to see them," he said.

"The mountains are an absolutely wonderful place but it can be cold and difficult in winter.

"Our PhD student nearly fell off a cliff trying to gather samples, he was having to hike up 2,500 metres."

The team at Cardiff University's School of Biosciences teamed up with researchers at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Science, led by Professor Fuwen Wei.

Their field work took place in 2003-04 and the laboratory work was carried out in Beijing with analysis completed in Cardiff.

Professor Bruford said their study shows China's strict anti-poaching protection measures were working.

It is hoped previous studies have underestimated the population by more than 50%.

China releases panda to the wild
28 Apr 06 |  Asia-Pacific
China reports panda breeding boon
17 Nov 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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