What determines selection and abandonment of a foraging patch by wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in winter?

Research paper by Zejun Z Zhang, Xiangjiang X Zhan, Li L Yan, Ming M Li, Jinchu J Hu, Fuwen F Wei

Indexed on: 05 Nov '08Published on: 05 Nov '08Published in: Environmental Science and Pollution Research


Foraging patches can be described as a nested hierarchy of aggregated resources, implying that study of foraging by wild animals should be directed across different spatial scales. However, almost all previous research on habitat selection by the giant panda has concentrated upon one scale. In this research, we carried out a field study to understand foraging patch selection by giant pandas in winter at both microhabitat and feeding site scales and, for the first time, attempted to understand how long it would stay at the feeding sites before moving on.The field survey was conducted from November 2002 to March 2003 at Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve (102 degrees 48'-103 degrees 00' E, 30 degrees 19'-30 degrees 47' N), Baoxing County of Sichuan Province, China, to collect data in both microhabitat and control plots. The microhabitat plots were located by fresh feces or foraging traces left by giant pandas, and the control plots were established to reflect the environment. Within each microhabitat plot, one 1x1 m2 plot was centralized at the center of each feeding site, in which numbers of old bamboos and old shoots, including eaten and uneaten, were counted, respectively.The results showed that winter microhabitats selected by this species were characteristic of gentle slopes and high old-shoot proportions and that the latter was even higher at feeding sites. Two selection processes, namely, from the environment to microhabitats and from the latter to feeding sites, were found during this species' foraging patch utilization. Giant pandas preferred to eat old shoots to old bamboo at feeding sites in winter and did not leave unless old-shoot density fell to lower than the average in the environment.Both microhabitats and feeding sites selected by giant pandas were characteristic of high old-shoot density, indicating that the preferred food item had a significant influence upon its foraging patch selection. The preference for gentle slopes by giant pandas was presumed to save energy in movement or reflect the need to sit and free its fore-limbs to grasp bamboo culms when feeding but also seemed to be correlated with an easier access to old shoots. The utilization of old shoots at feeding sites was assumed to help maximize energy or nutrient intake during their foraging.The difference between microhabitat plots and control plots and between microhabitats and feeding sites uncovered a continuous selection process from the environment via microhabitats to feeding sites. The utilization of old shoots at feeding sites was parallel to the marginal value theorem. The selection and abandonment of foraging patches by giant pandas was an optimal behavioral strategy adapted to their peculiar food with high cellulose and low protein.Our results uncovered the importance of multiple scales in habitat selection research. To further understand the process of habitat selection, future research should pay more attention to resolve the question of how to locate foraging patches under dense bamboo forests by the giant panda, which was traditionally considered to have poor eyesight, although our research has answered what type of habitats the giant panda prefers and when to leave.