Jan 13

Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) prefer to live in old forest which has never been logged, according to new research.

Giant panda photo

The giant panda is classified as Endangered, with fewer than 2,500 mature individuals left in the wild.

Looking at the habitat features most closely associated with the presence of giant pandas, the study, published in the journal Biological Letters, was based on data collected over five years in China’s Sichuan Province. As expected, bamboo was a key factor predicting the presence of giant pandas, as it forms the vast majority of their diet.

Photo of a giant panda feeding on bamboo

The poor nutritional quality of the giant panda’s specialised bamboo diet means it has to spend up to 14 hours a day feeding.

Importance of old-growth forest

However, the team also discovered that the presence of giant pandas was strongly linked to the age of the trees. Why old-growth forest is so important to the giant panda was unclear, but it may be that the bamboo growing beneath older trees is more nutritious, and easier for pandas to eat.

Another intriguing possibility is that only older trees grow large enough to form cavities in which female giant pandas can give birth. This raises the possibility that a lack of suitable ‘maternity dens’ may limit the giant panda population in areas which have a history of logging.

Photo of a giant panda maternity den

Female giant pandas give birth and care for the tiny cub in a ‘maternity den’ for the first few months of its life.

Protecting giant panda habitat

These important findings come ahead of a key decision by the Chinese government on whether to renew a logging ban which has been protecting giant panda habitat since 1998. The study concludes that it may be more cost-effective for the government to protect the existing old-growth forest than to open it up to logging while protecting an equivalent area of previously logged, secondary-growth forest.

Photo of typical giant panda habitat

The remaining giant pandas are now restricted to temperate mountain forests, at elevations up to around 3,400 metres.

With the protection of unlogged forest now shown to be as important to giant panda conservation as preserving areas of bamboo, it remains to be seen what the future will hold for these vital giant panda habitats.

View ARKive’s giant panda photos and videos.

Find out more about the giant panda on WWF’s Giant Panda page.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author