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Good panda genes

Brigitte Osterath / nhJuly 28, 2014

Giant panda bears are iconic for conservation efforts, but only 1,600 of them are left in the wild. Still, according to a new study, breeding programs in China have been mostly successful.

China Panda Babies
Image: Reuters

Conservationists have long been worried about the fact that giant panda bears have difficulties reproducing in captivity. Habitat destruction has led to a dangerously low number of giant pandas living in their native forests in China. But thanks to complex fertilization techniques, some zoos have successfully bred giant pandas.

Fuwen Wei from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues tried to find out just how successful these breeding programs are.

The study looked the genes of 240 panda bears from four different breeding programs in China. In the journal 'Molecular Biology and Evolution,' Wei and his colleagues found little inbreeding and high genetic diversity among the offspring.

The researchers believe the captive panda population is genetically healthy. Therefore, it won't be necessary to capture more wild pandas in order to add greater genetic variability to the breeding program. A high genetic diversity is needed to ensure captive animals avoid getting genetic diseases.

A pink, fuzzy panda baby. (Photo: EPA/TAIPEI ZOO / HANDOUT)
A little panda right after birth - always a highlight for conservationistsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As such, the researchers are confident it will be possible to reintroduce the panda bears into the wild. Genetic diversity is also important for animals in the wild because it enables animal populations to better adjust to changing external conditions. And this increases their chances of survival.

Once in the wild, these species are better protected against threats of extinction from diseases or climate change. But even the best genes can't protect them from poaching and habitat destruction.

Wei and his colleagues examined four breeding centers in China: Wolong, Chengdu, Louguantai and Beijing Zoo. These four centers are home to 64 percent of the more than 300 pandas kept in captivity all over the world.