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Panda More Resilient Than Thought

Dec 03, 2014 04:48 PM EST

Pandas are more resilient than previously thought, a new study says, causing conservationists who believed them to be inflexible about habitat to breathe a sigh of relief.

There are only about 1,600 giant pandas remaining in the wild, all of them forced to live in a 21,300-square-kilometer area in China due to logging and forest harvesting that has destroyed their habitat.

And despite the lack of natural predators in the area, pandas are an endangered species. The rarest member of the bear family, pandas live mainly in bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China, where they survive almost entirely on bamboo. They must eat from 26 to 84 pounds of it every day, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Given the specificity of their needs, scientists had always thought that these black and white animals were delicate and picky. For example, prior research had indicated they prefer a forest with fairly gentle slope that's easier to maneuver, with plenty of bamboo and located far away from humans.

"Panda habitat selection is a complex process that we are still trying to unravel," researcher Jianguo Liu said in a statement.

To add to the confusion, lead study author Vanessa Hull of Michigan State University noticed inconsistencies and lack of consensus when it came to studies of panda habitat selection, so she decided to get to the bottom of it herself. Hull observed giant pandas in China's Wolong Nature Reserve for three years, and found that they are surprisingly resilient.

Pandas, it turns out, will settle for secondary forests - forests that have been logged and have regrown - and are willing to climb steep slopes.

That's good news for conservationists who worried that the combination of their picky nature and habitat loss would drive this species towards extinction.

"It gives you hope," Hull added. "They've survived throughout many challenges over so many millions of years, it would be sad to think humans came along and threw it all away."

The results were published in the journal Ursus.

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