Failure of feces foils research -- or enhances it

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July 5, 2016

Thomas Connor is a PhD student studying with Jack Liu. He's spending his summer doing field work in and around Wolong, China.

Sweat streams down my face as I climb the steep slope. My guide and I are at around 2,000 meters elevation, and it usually stays quite cool even in these summer months, but the sun is full blast today and the hike is arduous. The slope must be at least 60 degrees, and all four limbs are needed to make progress up the mountain, with our hands grasping at vines or saplings for traction. Thorns and nettles scratch and sting, and our footing often gives way on the slick ground.

We finally make it to a ridge, and the start of the great swathes of bamboo that make up the understory of soThomas Connor on water break much of these montane forests. Here we pause for a rest, and I turn around to enjoy the view of the valley from which we started and the rugged peaks on its other side. A cool breeze rises to meet us, and any pain and fatigue is quickly forgotten in this moment. We cannot rest for long, however – there is much more climbing ahead to reach the realm of the giant panda.

I am at the southeast border of Wolong Nature Reserve, at the end of a winding road that climbs into the mountains from the sleepy town of Sanjiang. My lab has conducted research in Wolong for two decades, and I am investigating habitat fragmentation and giant panda population connectivity across Wolong, several bordering nature reserves, and some unprotected areas as well.

In the formulation of my study design I was concerned that some areas may be logistically difficult to get to and sample, but those concerns were unfounded here. Situated exactly on the border of Wolong is a large hotel with ample facilities, and as it’s just before the busy summer holidays my guide and I stay here at a reasonable price. There is a small railway leading into Wolong, which takes tourists along a river and up the valley to enjoy the scenery and eco-adventures. We have been able to utilize the service at times as well, and even once took a river raft back from the field, soaking ourselves and our gear but having a lot of fun in the process.

A downside to the budding ecotourism is a corresponding lack of pandas. Notoriously shy of people and human disturbance, we have had a lot of difficulty finding signs of panda activity, which to a trained eye is pretty easy to detect (due to the massive amounts of bamboo they need to eat and then pass). Although we have found good habitat high on the slopes, my feeling is that it is too little and too fragmented to support more than transient individuals.

Panda fecesAs we hiked deeper into Wolong and away from the tourism activities, we have begun to see some old feces and feeding sites (but alas, fresh samples, needed for DNA extraction, have eluded me this time!). Although I am disappointed that my short sampling session has yielded little when previous ones have been so fruitful, I find the “lack” of data interesting. I believe that here, above Sanjiang, the pandas and I have been foiled by habitat fragmentation and human disturbance, the very phenomena I am trying to study. I will be back to the region in September for three months of fieldwork, and expect to get much more done in that period.

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