In Brief

Why discomfort could save pandas from extinction

Experts say too much happiness can stop the bears from searching for new mates

A waving panda bear

Pandas may be at risk of extinction because they are too comfortable, new research suggests.

Conservationists have long believed that building roads or homes near the bears may threaten their survival by “reducing or fragmenting their natural habitats”, The Times reported. But latest research suggests that a “modest degree of discomfort and fragmentation” may actually help to preserve panda populations, said the newspaper.

Pandas fail to wander off in search of new mates if they find their habitat too comfortable, resulting in a lack of vital genetic diversity, the Michigan State University scientists concluded.

For their study - outlined in a paper in the journal Conservation Biology - the team looked at genetic diversity and spread among a Chinese panda population. The ideal level of perfectly habitable habitat was found to be only 80% of an area, with the remainder either too rugged or too affected by human activity.

The experts concluded that pandas should ideally “be happy enough to thrive, but not so content they don’t want to move around and find new mates”.

Their conclusions about what The Guardian described as this “sweet spot” are in line with the so-called Goldilocks principle: that there can be just the right amount of something. The concept has been extrapolated to everything from developmental psychology to economics and engineering.

Claudio Sillero, a professor of conservation biology at Oxford University, told the newspaper that the new findings could have implications beyond panda conservation. 

“Most large carnivores live in increasingly fragmented landscapes,” said Sillero,  who was not involved in the research. “It may well be that the messy nature of their interface with human endeavour induces more animals to disperse or travel further, and might result in greater genetic connectivity and enhanced population persistence.”

The most recent panda census, in 2014, found that there were more than 1,800 left in the wild, putting them on the list of vulnerable, but not endangered, species.

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