Starvation Diet: Climate Change Takes Bite Out of the Giant Pandas’ Food Supply

A new study highlights the effect of rising temperatures on the growth of bamboo in China.

giant pandas
Giant pandas enjoying an afternoon snack. (AFP/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Imagine heading over to your local grocery store to buy the foods you eat regularly and being told that they don’t carry them anymore. The items that are part of your everyday diet have disappeared from the food chain—forever. And we’re talking about necessities, not something like the recent run on Hostess Twinkies.

That pretty much sets the scene for the effect global warming may have on the diet of China’s giant pandas.

The Los Angeles Times recently highlighted a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, which predicts rising temperatures could eliminate much of the bamboo that is the main sustenance for the pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains. “In the wild, giant pandas are notoriously finicky eaters. Ninety-nine percent of their diet consists of bamboo, and in the Qinling Mountains region, in Shaanxi province, pandas eat only three species of the plant.”

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Mao-Ning Tuanmu, who is an evolutionary biologist and coauthor of the study, which was conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, observed that although pandas have survived large-scale die-offs of single bamboo species in the past, they could face extinction if several bamboo species died at the same time. “Giant pandas usually forage two to four bamboo species in one place,” Tuanmu told TakePart. They usually eat different bamboo species and eat different parts (e.g., leaves, shoots and culms) of bamboo in different seasons.”

He added that, “Previous studies have found that in the face of large-scale die-offs of a bamboo species after flowering, giant pandas changed their forage behaviors and diet compositions. They also shifted their home ranges to eat other non-flowered species. However, pandas mainly searched for and ate other staple food species, rather than consuming a new species, during past bamboo flowering events. Therefore, simultaneous die-offs of multiple bamboo species due to climate change, in addition to fragmented habitat due to human disturbances, may pose a threat to the giant panda.”

In establishing the parameters for the MSU study, Tuanmu explained that the researchers, “characterized suitable climate conditions for three dominant bamboo species in the Qinling Mountains by relating observed bamboo distribution with baseline climate conditions, which were based on weather station records in the late 20th century. Then we projected the extent and spatial distribution of the climatically suitable areas for the three bamboo species across the 21st century based on projected future climates under multiple climate change scenarios.”

“In terms of projected temperatures within our study region, those scenarios projected that the mean summer temperature is two to five degrees Celcius higher than the baseline and the mean winter temperature is three to eight degrees Celcius higher than the baseline by the end of this century.”

What this means is that most of the simulation models indicated a considerable loss of climatically suitable areas for the bamboo species and that future climate conditions in the Qinling Mountains may become unsuitable for all three species by the end of this century.

“The three bamboo species that we studied are currently the most dominant species and constitute almost the entire food for the panda population in the region,” said Tuanmu. “Therefore, the projected unsuitable climate conditions for the bamboo species suggest a potential risk of food shortage for the panda population if the pandas cannot find alternative food resources.”

Tuanmu pointed out that in the face of climate change, an important strategy will be to have more flexible conservation plans. This would include continuously monitoring the panda populations and their habitat, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of current conservation efforts, and adjusting strategies in response to the changing environment and new information that becomes available.

“The monitoring and evaluation efforts should not just focus on the current panda habitat. We should also pay attention on the areas which may become suitable in the future,” he said. “We should avoid or reduce human disturbances on those areas, maintain or restore their connection with the current habitat, and evaluate the suitability of those areas for both bamboo species and giant pandas.”

Do you think the results of this study pose a real threat to the pandas’ diet?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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