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Withered on the stem: is bamboo a seasonally limiting resource for giant pandas?

Abstract

In response to seasonal variation in quality and quantity of available plant biomass, herbivorous foragers may alternate among different plant resources to meet nutritional requirements. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are reliant almost exclusively on bamboo which appears omnipresent in most occupied habitat, but subtle temporal variation in bamboo quality may still govern foraging strategies, with population-level effects. In this paper, we investigated the possibility that temporal variation in the quality of this resource is involved in population regulation and examined pandas’ adaptive foraging strategies in response to temporal variation in bamboo quality. Giant pandas in late winter and early spring consumed a less optimal diet in Foping Nature Reserve, as the availability of the most nutritious and preferred components and age classes of Bashania fargesii declined, suggesting that bamboo may be a seasonally limiting resource. Most panda mortalities and rescues occurred during the same period of seasonal food limitation. Our findings raised the possibility that while total bamboo biomass may not be a limiting factor, carrying capacity may be influenced by subtle seasonal variation in bamboo quality. We recommend that managers and policy-makers should consider more than just the quantity of bamboo in the understory and that carrying capacity estimates should be revised downward to reflect the fact that all bamboos are not equal.

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Acknowledgements

This project was supported by National Key Program of Research and Development, Ministry of Science and Technology (No. 2016YFC0503200), National Natural Science Foundation of China (31270570, 31470462, 31670530), and International Cooperation Foundation for Giant Pandas of the State Forestry Administration (CM1425). This research was also approved by San Diego Zoo Global’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (Proposal No. 11-013). Xiaoling Wang, Anxing Zhang, Chunju Pu, and Chengdong Li assisted in the field. Thanks are also given to the reviewers for their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Zejun Zhang.

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Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

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Li, Y., Swaisgood, R.R., Wei, W. et al. Withered on the stem: is bamboo a seasonally limiting resource for giant pandas?. Environ Sci Pollut Res 24, 10537–10546 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-8746-6

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Keywords

  • Bamboo biomass
  • Diet
  • Energetic constraints
  • Foraging strategy
  • Population regulation