Male and female giant pandas prefer different habitats

Giant panda (image: Eric Baccega / NPL) Female pandas are pickier than males

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Male and female giant pandas prefer to use different habitats, say scientists.

Female pandas frequent high altitude conifer forests and mixed forests on steeper slopes, whereas males roam more widely, researchers found.

Females prefer these areas as they provide den sites for birthing and dense bamboo cover in which baby pandas can hide.

The discovery could inform strategies for conserving wild pandas and releasing them back into the wild.

Details are published in the Journal of Zoology.

Dunwu Qi and Fuwen Wei of the Institute for Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues studied the movements of giant pandas within the Liangshan Mountains of south central China.

They conducted transect surveys recording the presence of pandas by sight or by their droppings.

By studying the DNA in fecal samples, the researchers could determine the sex of the pandas encountered.

Panda mother and cub asleep (c) Mihail Moore / AGB Films Females in the wild conceal their young

Giant pandas are solitary animals confined to highly fragmented montane forests in remote China.

Scientists well understand the basic type of habitat pandas need to survive, which tends to be forests above 1500m rich in bamboo, the pandas' main food.

The animals generally avoid higher peaks lacking bamboo and lower areas dominated by people.

But the specific requirements of males and females has been largely ignored until now.

The scientists' study confirmed that both sexes prefer to live in areas at higher altitudes and with high forest cover.

But female pandas are more picky than males.

They tend to limit their movements to within high altitude conifer forests and mixed forests, as well as historically clear-felled forest.

  • Bamboo is so nutritionally poor that the pandas have to consume up to 20kg each day
  • An extra digit on the panda's hand helps them to tear the bamboo and their gut is covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against splinters

They also prefer habitat that slopes at between 10 and 20 degrees.

Such areas are better for raising young. Female pandas are selective about their den sites and often make dens in stands of large conifer trees more than 200 years old.

That also suggests that den sites may be limited in logged areas.

Males, in contrast, range more widely, covering areas that overlap the ranges of several females.

This segregation of the sexes should be accounted for in conservation and management efforts to safeguard the giant panda, say the researchers.

In particular, it should be recognised that female giant pandas have a narrower habitat preference than males.

That means they are likely to be disproportionately affected by habitat loss and people exploiting the forest.

It should also be taken into account when breeding programmes release giant pandas back into the wild.

Roads don't appear to have as great an impact on the movements of giant pandas as previously thought, say the researchers.

Females are often found near abandoned logging trails, though this could be an artefact of the number of roads of this type that crisscross the region.

Males tend to frequent habitat close to roads used by vehicles, perhaps due to their need to move greater distances to find prospective female mates.

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