The quest for panda poo (first day in the field)

Written by: Thomas Connor

Primary Source: Human+Nature Blog

Yesterday was my first day venturing into the field to collect fecal samples for later genetic analysis. I hope to conduct a non-invasive genetics survey of Wolong Nature reserve and the surrounding areas to determine movement patterns and population structure at a reserve-network scale and determine some of the effects of human development and protection efforts on pandas.

To introduce the terrain and area, I went to the study area that Vanessa and Jindong have done much of their research over the last decade. Leading the way was Mr. Yan, a veteran field worker with over 20 years of experience in Wolong. Along with me, another guy getting his first taste of panda research was a local named Wan Fugwei, fluent in English and pretty experienced with driving and hiking in the area.

The day started with a stop-off at a local shop for lunch supplies, before a considerable drive up a narrow road further into the mountains. My uneasiness at some of the steep drop-offs was offset by my gladness at the sheer amount of climbing we were cutting out of our day. We parked at the end of the road at a gate and continued on foot. We hiked through pastureland at a steady pace, sometimes following a trail of sorts but often just climbing the steep grassy slopes at a direction of Mr. Yan’s choosing.

We finally made a peak and were rewarded glorious views of the valley and opposite slopes. The other side of the mountain was dense forest, and after a quick rest we descended into the thick of it. Here there was a narrow and sometimes disintegrating trail, one that I clung to for dear life. Though that is being a bit dramatic, I will say that a small misstep would likely have resulted in severe injury at several points.

The trail clung to the edge of the mountain until we started climbing another peak. Upon reaching the top of this one, I was told we were finally in the habitat of the giant panda. This was soon obvious, as only a few meters into the forest on this side the understory was choked with bamboo.

Mr. Yan pointed out a camera trap, and did a quick check up. I hope that any pictures it took of my huffing, sweat-drenched self don’t see the light of day. On the drive up the mountain Fugwei told me that Mr. Yan guaranteed we would find panda feces that day. I enjoyed his optimism and looked forward to seeing my first panda traces, but I highly doubted I would find anything usable as the summer rains and higher temperatures quickly wash away and degrade the DNA on feces.

To my surprise and joy we had gone not 10 meters from the camera trap before we found our first sample, 3-4-days-old by Mr. Yan’s estimation. As a special bonus there was a much smaller dropping right next to the large one – a mother and cub had fed here. Both samples had a clear membrane on the outside, which is sloughed off during the digestive process and ideal for DNA extraction. Bagged, tagged, and into my backpack.

We took a quick survey of the surrounding habitat and a GPS recording, and we were off. Now we were really into the thick of bamboo. Without a stick pushing stalks aside there was no way to see the ground. I should note that this bamboo was unlike the thick-stalked and towering stands I am used to. These bamboo reached about chest height and were generally less than a centimeter thick. At our elevation of about 3000 meters the over-story was a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees.

As we continued along we found more feces, but most were old and unusable for DNA extraction. Mr. Yan pointed out a smaller set of droppings as those of a red panda. A little bit later, Mr. Yan and Fugwei stopped and pointed downslope. Lying in a tree, having a nice midday nap, was a red panda. I have now seen quite a few in captivity, but it just cannot compare with catching a glimpse of a wild animal fully in its element. We inched down closer, but well outside of picture range (at least my phone camera’s range) the creature was off.

As we trudged on through the bamboo understory, our luck continued. We found sample after sample, some deposited just that day. By the time we left the bamboo forest, we had found six total samples, four that I am quite sure will have good results and two that I’m hopeful for. A very good start. We hiked up a stream to get back to pastureland. We passed many camera traps from Vanessa and Jindong’s study, but we had completely left the bamboo. I curiously asked where all the bamboo had gone, and Mr. Yan replied “horses.” I was walking through Vanessa and Jindong’s study on livestock grazing and its degradation of panda habitat. Though the paper was powerful, it is much more striking to see the effects in person. We had gone from areas of 90% bamboo cover to a near-complete wipe of its presence in the forest.

At last we reached the pastureland, and began our cross-slope descent to the vehicle. The scenery was again beautiful and a lovely breeze was blowing. We passed sheep, cattle, yak, and goats on our way down. At times I feel like I am gaining experience in shepherding as well as field biology!

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

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