Giant pandas have plenty of genetic diversity

Even though there are only about 1,000 giant pandas left, there is hope for this beloved endangered species. A comprehensive genetic analysis of three wild giant panda populations shows that they still have enough genetic diversity to recover.

"From a strictly genetic perspective, the giant panda species and the three populations look promising...they have retained a large amount of diversity in each population," say Lu Zhi of Peking University in Beijing, China, Stephen O'Brien of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, and their co-authors in the December issue of Conservation Biology.

Despite its status as the "poster animal" of endangered species, little is known about the remaining populations of giant pandas in the wild. Historically, giant pandas lived in forests from China to northern Burma and Vietnam, but extensive deforestation has restricted the species to six alpine forest fragments in the rugged mountain ranges along the Tibetan plateau in western China. Assisted by conservation organizations, the Chinese government has recently stepped up efforts to protect the pandas: since 1993 the number of reserves has more than doubled (from 14 to 33), and they are monitored and patrolled more frequently.

However, biologists estimate that the remaining giant pandas are divided into about 25 populations with fewer than 20 individuals each. Because small, isolated populations are more likely to die out, this increases the risk that the species will become extinc. Lu, O'Brien and their colleagues analyzed the genetic variation in giant pandas primarily from populations in three mountain ranges: one that is separated from the others by a 75-mile-wide valley (Qinling) and two that are adjacent (Minshan and Qionglai).

The researchers found that the giant panda has moderate genetic diversity compared other carnivores. "The giant pa

Contact: Stephen O'Brien
Society for Conservation Biology

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