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Black and white with a bite

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Black and white with a bite

In the same way that images of athletes often contain a prop related to their sport of choice, some animals are often portrayed in association with particular foods. For example, rabbits have carrots nearby, koalas pose in eucalyptus trees and pandas are caught on film gnawing on bamboo.

A recent study from American and Chinese researchers suggests that pandas may have to change their diet as climate change could reduce the number of bamboo species. That may be easier said than done as Spanish researchers have reported finding the oldest relative of the giant panda, and they used dental records to prove the familial relationship.

“As a global icon of biodiversity conservation, the giant panda has attracted unparalleled conservation efforts,” the researchers from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences wrote in the study published Nov. 11 in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Although giant pandas have survived large-area die-offs of single bamboo species by shifting their home ranges and foraging on nonaffected bamboo species, they may face regional extinction if climate change, as projected by this study, induces simultaneous die-offs of multiple bamboo species.”

The team focused their climate simulations on three bamboo species found in the Qinling Mountains of China, home to nearly a fifth of the world’s wild panda population. These bamboo species predominate in the regions between the forest canopy and the ground cover, and take several decades to grow and reproduce.

The team based the models off reports used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projecting the impact of rising global temperatures and the local effects on the bamboo species and surrounding environments out to the end of the 21st century. Their findings suggest that if the projected global environmental changes continue, the various bamboo species would not thrive in their current ecosystem. Without these bamboo plants, the pandas would not survive in the wild.

The importance of bamboo to the pandas’ existence is backed up by a report published November 14 in the journal PLoS ONE that shows the giant panda lineage goes back a few million years more than had been previously thought.

The team led by Juan Abella of the National Museum of Natural Sciences studied animal dental remains found in Spain that date back approximately 11.8-11.2 million years ago. They said the teeth and partial jawbone recovered indicated that this ancestral species of bear was used to feeding on tough plant matter, a characteristic feature present in the giant panda’s family tree rather than in other bear lineages.

More importantly, they added, the age of the fossils indicates that they should be considered as “the oldest recorded member of the giant panda lineage.” Such data, the team said, is helping to fill in the gaps in understanding where the pandas fall in the overarching family tree of all bear species.

This is the second report this year from Abella’s team to help fill out the giant panda’s family tree. In May the researchers reported on a new fossil species found in a Spanish province suggesting that nearly 11 million years ago, the giant panda had a distant cousin that was much smaller than the current bear species to hold that distinction.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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