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For pandas, too much suitable habitat can be a problem

For pandas, too much suitable habitat can be a problem
Gene flow among panda populations is greatest when only about 80 percent of a landscape features suitable panda habitat. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Pandas are notoriously slow reproducers. That's why it's a problem when pandas get too cozy.

According to a new study, published Monday in the journal Conservation Biology, pandas can become complacent and move less if their range is filled with ideal habitat.

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Pandas need to move in order to find mates and make the next generation of pandas. As such, pandas benefit when their home base features some not-so-nice habitat too.

That's good news for conservation managers, who can now lower their standards. The research suggests human-panda cohabitation may not be as difficult as once thought.

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"This work provides hope to balance needs for ecological sustainability and human well-being," study co-author Jianguo 'Jack' Liu said in a press release.

"Our results show it is possible for both pandas and humans to thrive across coupled human and natural systems," said Liu, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University.

Understandably, most conservation studies -- of pandas and other threatened species -- have focused on threats to suitable habitat, including fragmentation. Animals need resources to survive and space to move in order to maintain healthy levels of genetic diversity.

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Roads and deforestation can deplete natural resources and cut off an animal's ability to branch out in search of new territory and mates.

Conservation scientists have been searching for ways to connect remaining habitat fragments so that threatened animals can move more freely. But according to the latest research, human development and fragmentation aren't the only things that keep a panda from moving.

Pandas are also more likely to stay where they are when their habitat is too welcoming.

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When studying genetic diversity among panda populations in China, researchers found gene flow was greatest when 80 percent of a given landscape featured suitable habitat.

"As opposed to the potential interpretation of our results that maximizing the amount of habitat in a landscape can be bad for connectivity," said lead study author Thomas Connor.

He said, however, that the research shouldn't be taken as an excuse to avoid restoring panda habitat -- maximizing habitat in a given area won't thwart connectivity.

"I think that our research suggests a message of hope," said Conner, who recently earned his doctoral degree from CSIS at Michigan State.

"We can effectively manage panda populations by conserving and restoring habitat to intermediate levels. In other words, we don't have to create perfect habitat to keep protecting pandas," said Connor, now a postdoctoral scholar at University of California-Berkeley.

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