updated 4/17/2012 9:48:19 PM ET 2012-04-18T01:48:19

For all their cuteness, giant pandas are in a tight spot. There are fewer than 1,600 pandas left in the wild, and a new study found that more than half of the bears' already diminished natural habitat will be unlivable in 70 years thanks to climate change.

To protect the black-and-white creatures, zoologists are working furiously to understand and improve panda-breeding in captivity. Toward that end, another recent study investigated male pandas ' reproductive cycle, and found that, contrary to females, males are ready and able to mate during more than six months of the year.

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Turning up the heat

Though pandas are the pride of many zoos around the world, their situation in the wild is growing dire. One of the greatest threats to the furry creatures is habitat loss from climate change and human encroachment, scientists say.

While the species used to roam over most of southeastern China, northern Myanmar, and northern Vietnam, now pandas are limited to six mountain ranges between the Sichuan plain and Tibetan plateau.

And that habitat is looking to grow much smaller, with pandas set to lose 60 percent of their current range due to climate change by 2080, researchersreported in a paper published in the International Journal of Ecology in March. That's a loss of more than 6,200 square miles (16,000 square kilometers).

As global temperatures become warmer, on average, the panda-suitable habitats will move to higher elevations and latitudes, according to climate models. In addition to pandas' limited geographic range, the species has other traits that suggest climate change could hit it hard.

"Giant pandas have a narrow range, do not disperse over large distances, produce one cub every two to three years, and depend on bamboo for 99 percent of their diet," the researchers, led by Melissa Songer of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, wrote in their paper. "These traits suggest they will be highly susceptible to climate change."

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Holding out hope

While much of pandas' existing habitat may be lost, the bears might be able to move to new regions.

"New areas may become suitable outside the current geographic range but much of these areas [are] far from the current giant panda range and only 15 percent fall within the current protected area system," the scientists wrote. "Long-term survival of giant pandas will require the creation of new protected areas that are likely to support suitable habitat even if the climate changes."

And ultimately, there is reason for hope.

"The panda is so well-known, such a flagship species for conservation in general," Aitken-Palmer said. "I think if we can't have hope for the panda, who can we have hope for? I want to have hope, but conservation worldwide is in trouble. Only time will tell."

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