How The Giant Panda Could Be Saved By Its Paws

A panda's pawprints are unique, just like our fingerprints. Binbin Li/Duke Kunshan University

Despite their size and unique appearance, giant pandas still manage to elude the scientists trying to study them in the wild. Now researchers have come up with an ingenious way of monitoring pandas, one footprint at a time.

Sadly these bamboo-munching adorable animals are in trouble. They are currently listed as vulnerable to extinction, and only about 1,860 exist in the wild. Knowing how many pandas there are, and whereabouts they’re most populous is key to protecting them and stopping their numbers from falling further. But they’re rather tricky to spot.

"Giant pandas live in remote and hard-to-reach areas and their population density is so low that actual sightings of pandas themselves are not common,” explained study leader Binbin Li, assistant professor of environmental sciences at Duke Kushan University, in a statement. “What we do see a lot of are footprints and fecal droppings."

But analyzing the DNA in fecal droppings is expensive, and relies on fresh samples and access to sophisticated scientific equipment. Meanwhile, estimating a panda’s bite-size from bamboo fragments in its feces isn’t very effective.

However, just like our fingerprints, a panda's feet are unique to their owner, making footprints a useful tool for identifying individual animals and working out population size.

"Each species has a unique characteristic foot structure and the panda, in particular, has a beautifully complex foot that makes it a perfect candidate for monitoring with FIT," said study author Zoe Jewell.

FIT stands for Footprint Identification Technique. It is an interactive software tool that can “read” and analyze digital images of footprints. The pictures are submitted to a global database so that they can be matched with pre-existing data. The software can also tell the sex of the footprint’s owner.

FIT has so far been used to help census a number of endangered species and is currently being used to monitor polar bears in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, Amur tigers in Russia, and the teeny tiny Hazel dormouse of the UK, among others.

The simplicity of FIT means that anyone can get involved in the monitoring of wild animals, simply by taking photos of footprints and submitting them to Conservation FIT, which was launched earlier this year by wildlife-tracking organization WildTrack.

In terms of giant pandas, the researchers think the new technique could also be useful for monitoring pandas that have been released into the wild from captivity. Their findings are published in Biological Conservation

"Giant pandas are hard to count – they are shy and live in remote mountains. Yet we must know how many there are if we are to prevent their extinction,” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School. “The footprint technique is a major breakthrough in our ability to count them.”

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