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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
New optimism for panda survival
Giant panda at the Wologong Giant Panda Research Centre
The Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre helped with the fieldwork
The giant panda has a better chance of survival than previously thought, scientists have discovered.

The fear had been that their bamboo diet, slow reproduction rate and isolated habitat made them unable to adapt as a species in the modern world.

But research by Cardiff University and scientists in Beijing shows they are more capable of evolving than believed.

With the right conservation efforts, this means they have every chance of avoiding extinction, said a professor.

Mike Bruford, professor of biodiversity at Cardiff University, is one of the authors of the report which has just been published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

He said: "For a long time, people thought pandas don't have a right to exist in the modern world because they only eat bamboo, they have a weird and slow reproduction, they're isolated in mountain tops in the most populated country in the world.

"People said these guys are an evolutionary dead end. They had evolved a way of living that was not flexible or had a place in the way the world is now."

Professor Mike Bruford
If you do the right things with their habitat and stop that getting worse, these animals have got every chance of adapting and surviving
Professor Mike Bruford

There are only around 2,500 or less pandas left in the world.

Previous studies had shown they had very low "genetic variation", which meant they did not have the capacity to evolve.

"Lump that in with the fact they are carnivores that only eat bamboo shoots and produce tiny little babies that don't seem feasible," Professor Bruford added.

"People said this is the sort of species we need to let go. A relic."

The team from Cardiff University's school of biosciences and the Institute of Zoology Chinese Academy of Scientists, decided to revisit the issue using modern techniques.

Samples, mainly droppings, from 169 individual pandas were analysed using DNA profiling.

In 2006, this more accurate technique had enabled the team to discover there could be more than double the number of pandas in the Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan province than previously thought.

Earlier surveys may have underestimated population levels because they used more conventional methods.

Man with panda droppings
Only bright green, fresh panda droppings are useful for research

Professor Bruford said: "We did genetic analysis and it turns out pandas don't have low genetic variation.

"They have perfectly normal levels of genetic variation for any bear."

They did, however find "strong evidence" that the number of pandas has been going down for the last 3,000 - 4,000 years.

He said efforts now need to be made to reconnect panda habitats and prevent deforestation.

"If you do the right things with their habitat and stop that getting worse, these animals have got every chance of adapting and surviving," he explained. "We are likely to succeed if we do the right things.

Giant panda
There may be less than 2,500 giant pandas left in the world

"The fear would be it doesn't matter how much effort we put in if animals can't reproduce their way out of the problem but that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

"When we started comparing giant pandas to the other bears that have been studied and we saw their genetic diversity was even slightly higher then average, I was truly amazed," he said.

The researchers are now working with the Sichuan forestry bureau management authority and colleagues in Beijing are considering surveying other populations.

Professor Bruford is travelling to Beijing where a new panda population is being studied.

They particularly want to learn whether the pandas are crossing roads and rivers or if they present a barrier to their movement.




SEE ALSO
Pandas gain world heritage status
12 Jul 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Giant panda ancestor not so giant
18 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
Freed Chinese panda dies in wild
31 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Panda mating frenzy hits zoo
04 May 07 |  Science/Nature
Hope for future of giant panda
20 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature

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