Scientists invite Web surfers to come along on panda quest

Dec. 10, 2007

Michigan State University’s panda habitat research team has spent years collecting mountains of data aimed at understanding and saving giant pandas. Now people can join a graduate student as she works to catch crucial data that’s black, white and furry. 

Vanessa Hull, 25, a Ph.D. candidate, is in the snowy, remote mountains of the Sichuan Province of China – which also is the heart of panda habitat. She’s hoping to capture, collar and track up to four wild pandas using advanced global positioning systems.

Along with her research gear, Hull, an NSF Graduate Fellow and MSU University Distinguished Fellow, is lugging a small digital video camera and a laptop computer. She’s sending back video and images to add to Michigan State’s ongoing coverage of panda habitat research.

Her quest is being documented at http://special.news.msu.edu/panda/ from MSU’s Office of University Relations. It includes video clips and panda pictures from previous trips MSU has documented, as well as news releases on relevant scientific publications. There’s also a chance to e-mail questions about the panda research to the team.

“We are very excited about this new project. It will generate lots of long-awaited important information about panda biology, behavior and interactions with human activities,” says Jianguo "Jack" Liu, Hull’s major adviser, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and University Distinguished Professor of fisheries and wildlife.

For the past dozen years, the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, led by Liu, painstakingly has gathered and crunched data on the pandas’ habitat, in collaboration with Professor Zhiyun Ouyang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Director Hemin Zhang at Wolong Nature Reserve.

With support from the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Natural Science Foundation of China and other sources, the scientists have made groundbreaking discoveries on the give-and-take between panda and human survival in the bamboo jungles, mountains and farmland of the Wolong Nature Reserve, home of the famous panda research and breeding center.

The giant pandas are the darlings of their native China and the world. But walk through panda habitat and they’re invisible. Pandas are endangered. Estimates of panda numbers in the wild range from 1,600 to 3,000.

Pandas are particular. Nonnegotiable to the panda is a home that offers lots of choice bamboo, mature trees strong enough to hold a napping panda, ideal temperature and a comfy slope.

Pandas share their home, even in reserves, with people locked in their own struggle to survive. The logging and farming that provides humans heat for their homes and income to survive has wiped out acres of panda-friendly terrain.

Recent history is steeped in irony. China’s efforts to save the pandas have made the nature reserves an irresistible tourist attraction. Panda fans on ecotourism trips flock like groupies. This commerce and development degrades panda habitat.

Hull, a student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is among the first to obtain permits to trap the pandas and fit them with safe GPS collars. She and the team will map where these elusive creatures go, effectively letting the pandas tell the researchers the habitat they like best.

Scientists can mesh what the pandas tell them with that mountain of data. It can help them identify the most hospitable panda neighborhoods, learn how to preserve those and create more.

Contact:

Sue Nichols
Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability
(517) 432-0206
nichols@msu.edu

shadow