Scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have made computer models of how changing climate may affect the species of bamboo that cover the forest floors of prime panda habitat in northwestern China.
Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, they say even the most optimistic scenarios show bamboo die-offs would effectively cause prime panda habitat to become inhospitable by the end of the 21st century.
"Understanding impacts of climate change is an important way for science to assist in making good decisions," Michigan researchers Jianguo "Jack" Liu said. "Looking at the climate impact on the bamboo can help us prepare for the challenges that the panda will likely face in the future."
The bamboo species studied only flowers and reproduces every 30 to 35 years, which limits its ability to adapt to changing climate and can spell disaster for a food supply, the researchers said.
If large areas of bamboo become unavailable, human development could prevent pandas from a clear, accessible path to the next meal source, they said.
"The giant panda population also is threatened by other human disturbances," researcher Mao-Ning Tuanmu said. "Climate change is only one challenge for the giant pandas. But on the other hand, the giant panda is a special species. People put a lot of conservation resources in to them compared to other species. We want to provide data to guide that wisely."