Pandas Numbers Up

25 June 2006
Posted by Chris Smith.

Contrary to perceived wisdom, panda numbers look at lot rosier than we thought - possibly several thousand of them exist in the wild.

They were once widespread across China and most of southeast Asia. But pressure from humans development has pushed them into just a few environmental corners in the mountainous regions of western China, and scientists thought there might be as few as 1500 left. Since pandas are reclusive and live at a range of altitudes scientists have traditionally counted them by collecting their faeces, which contain pieces of their bamboo diet, and then working out from the bite-sizes in the bamboo how many individuals must be present.

But now a team of researchers led by Cardiff University's Michael Bruford have used a new method to determine panda numbers, also using excrement, but this time by extracting DNA from the faeces and genetically fingerprinting them. Thankfully pandas are fairly prodigious defecators and go up to 40 times per day, so there's plenty of raw material to work with.

The results, published in this month's Current Biology, suggest that there may be 3000 pandas left in the wild, which is many more than expected, and another reassuring finding was that, genetically speaking, the panda population seems very diverse with no signs of a "bottleneck" caused by a population crash.

This is significant because when species numbers drop too low they often succumb to the effects of in-breeding caused by being genetically too similar to each other. However, Bruford cautions that although the numbers of encouraging the panda "is not out of the woods yet" (or the bamboo for that matter) and they still require careful monitoring because their habitat is still threatened.

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