Male and female giant pandas prefer to use different habitats, according to new research published in the Journal of Zoology. Female pandas were found to have highly specific habitat requirements, while male pandas ranged more widely, covering areas that overlap the ranges of several females.
The charismatic giant panda is a solitary animal, found only in highly fragmented montane forests in remote parts of China. While scientists are familiar with the basic habitat requirements of this species, which is usually bamboo-rich forest above elevations of 1,500 metres, the new research is the first to look at how habitat requirements differ between the sexes.
Female pandas were most commonly found in high altitude conifer forests and mixed forests on steeper slopes. Female giant pandas were also discovered to prefer habitat that slopes at between 10 and 20 degrees, and tended to limit their movements much more than males.
The researchers, from the Institute for Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, think that the reason why female pandas have more specialised habitat requirements is that they need suitable areas to raise their young.
Female giant pandas are particularly selective about their den sites, often making their dens in stands of large conifer trees more than 200 years old. Conifer and mixed forests therefore provide ideal sites for birthing, as well as dense bamboo cover to conceal their young.
Implications for conservation
The discovery that male and female giant pandas have very different habitat requirements could inform strategies for conserving wild pandas, such as when releasing them back into the wild.
Segregation of the sexes should be accounted for in conservation and management efforts to safeguard the giant panda, say the researchers.
In particular, the narrower habitat preferences of female giant pandas mean that they are more likely to be disproportionately affected by habitat loss and exploitation of forest resources. Breeding programmes which release giant pandas back into the wild should also take into account the different habitat requirements, to ensure the best chance of survival.
Read the article in the Journal of Zoology
Find out more about the giant panda on ARKive
Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author