Giant pandas turn out to be a lot more social — and flirtatious — than anyone had ever imagined, according to new research.
The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Mammalogy, provides evidence that the iconic black and white bears are not always solitary creatures, as was once thought, but instead have rich and complex social lives.
"Pandas are such an elusive species and it's very hard to observe them in wild, so we haven't had a good picture of where they are from one day to the next," co-author Vanessa Hull of Michigan State University said in a press release.
Hull and her colleagues placed GPS collars on five giant pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China. Caretakers there have named the pandas: Pan Pan, Mei Mei and Zhong Zhong (three adult females), Long Long (a young female), and Chuan Chuan (a male).
The pandas, wearing their new high tech bling, were released back into the reserve.
"This was a great opportunity to get a peek into the panda's secretive society that has been closed off to us in the past," co-author Jindong Zhang said.
Hull added, "Once we got all the data in the computer we could see where they go and map it. It was so fascinating to sit down and watch their whole year unfold before you like a little window into their world."
The researchers determined that two of the adult females, Chuan Chuan and Mei Mei, hung out together for long periods during the fall and outside of the spring mating season. With them was little Long Long, the young female panda.
As for the male Chuan Chuan, he traveled much more than the females did, but frequently came back to check on them. As he did so, he would advertise his presence with scent marking, meaning that he rubbed his smelly glands against nearby trees. The females seemed loyal to him, so the smell was definitely not a turn off.
Could male pandas in the wild keep harems? The researchers are still learning about giant panda sex lives. The Chinese government is protective of its endangered pandas, and for more than a decade banned putting GPS collars on them, so data is still relatively scarce.
From this latest study, the scientists also found that pandas spend a lot of time munching bamboo in up to 30 favorite areas.
"They pretty much sit down and eat their way out of an area, but then need to move on to the next place," Hull explained.
The GPS tracking revealed that the five pandas returned to their favorite dining spots after being gone for long spans of time, up to six months. This suggests that they remember successful feasting experiences, and return in anticipation of regrowth.
The researchers add that specific locations may also have other importance for pandas to return to if the bears are communicating with neighboring pandas at certain vantage points.
While the wild panda population has increased nearly 17 percent to 1,864 pandas, the bears are still threatened by habitat fragmentation, human impacts and climate change.
Photo by Chen Wu