The Giant Panda has become a symbol of endangered animals that need urgent protection around the world. This rare animal is fighting a number of factors like habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and climate change to survive. But a new research offers a rare ray of hope for the animal saying that because the Giant Panda’s immune system is fairly diverse, it is more resilient to environmental changes than previously thought.
Biologists estimate that only about 1,500 giant pandas live in the wild today, confined to six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China. At one time these members of the bear family were found in parts of Burma and northern Vietnam as well but environmental factors have led their population to decline. Since 1990 the Giant Panda has been listed as Endangered by International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
To understand the genetic diversity of the present wild population researchers at the Zhejiang University in China recently collected genetic material within either the blood, skin or fecal materials of 218 wild pandas from all six isolated mountain ranges the bears now roam.
The team specifically saw the part of the part of the genome that embodies parts of the immune system called major histocompatibility complex (MHC).
This is the portion that adapts and different population have different MHC. Other parts of a genome are the same within all individuals of a given species, and would therefore not be good indicators of genetic diversity.
Genetic diversity is an important tool for survival as it ensures that a single epidemic or spread of pathogen for example does not wipe out the entire population. At least a diverse immune system can protect few if not all of the species.
“The assumption is that a decrease in genetic variation and a lack of exchange between isolated populations increase the likelihood of extinction by reducing the population’s ability to adapt to changing environments,” the team writes in a report.
The report was published in the journal BioMed Central on October 21st.
They found that Giant Panda shows more genetic diversity than the Bengal tiger or the Namibian Cheetah, species that are equally endangered. But compared to a Brown bear it had less genetic diversity.
Paul Hohenlohe, a biologist at the University of Idaho who was not involved in the study believes that the study shows, pandas did not experience the kind of ‘bottleneck’ in the past that cheetahs faced and led them to become more genetically uniform.
He added that the new data could help in captive breeding of animals that are more genetically diverse.
“If you need to capture 10 pandas for a captive breeding program, then you choose those 10 to encompass the most diversity,” Hohenlohe told LiveScience. “You can do that by getting them from multiple populations, or one population that has the most diversity.”
Habitat restorations of these endangered species can also take place based on the the places that will give rise to a more genetically diverse population.
For now, the research helps point that compared to a tiger the Panda has more chances to survive in the world.