Stalking Shows Pandas Real Lives

PandasGiant pandas are one of the most popular endangered species. Their sweet-looking faces, gentle dispositions, cute teddy bear ears and distinctive looks have made them beloved to visit in zoos, check out on panda cams, and wear on clothes. Electronically stalking pandas in the wild also shows they are pretty social creatures in their “real lives,” far more so than previously imagined.

Relatively little has been known about China’s giant pandas in the wild and their nature. It is known they are picky eaters but strict laws protecting them in China have curtailed attempts to study them outside of zoos. However, a new study that employed electronic stalking and was published this week offers the first in-depth examination of their social interaction far away from human eyes.

A landmark study conducted by researchers with Michigan State University offers the first in-depth look into the behavior, movement and lives of five wild pandas. The pandas, who were captured within the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China and given GPS tracking collars, included a trio of adult females, a young female and an adult male. The group was electronically tracked from 2010 to 2012.

The study revealed that, while giant pandas may seem asocial in certain settings, they actually tend to hang out with one another, or at least in the same forest region for long periods of time. The home ranges of the pandas overlapped and, on occasion, two of the animals spent several weeks in close proximity. The study says the pandas sometimes stayed within 10 or meters apart, which suggested they interacted (or were aware of their neighbor) outside of mating season. This goes against the bears’ reputations as loners. That reputation has governed how the animals, once they are adults, have been treated in captivity.

The San Diego Zoo has long been active in and respected for their panda conservation efforts. They have also won new fans for the species with their great panda cam that  allowed the public to watch the six cubs they have successfully bred grow up before their eyes.

The Zoo, however, has separated the pandas into different enclosures once each baby was weaned under the previous assumption that they should be kept separate. In fact, the Zoo’s website says: “Pandas aren’t party animals by any stretch of the imagination…. Wild pandas are solitary by nature.” The page goes on to explain that they are territorial about their bamboo. It adds that when two pandas cross paths, “they’ll growl, swat, and lunge at each other,” except during mating season.

The Michigan study, which was published this week in the Journal of Mammalogy, broke researchers’ expectations and challenged hypotheses on the behavior of giant pandas. The male in the group clearly spent time commingling with the females outside of the typical mating season, yet it was always assumed they only interacted at mating time.

The study was the first of its kind because the Chinese government has not allowed tracking collars to be used for research purposes in the past. However, the collars, which enabled the electronic stalking, show a far deeper look into the real lives of pandas than possible for human observation. As study coauthors Vanessa Hull and Jindong Zhang noted, “This was a great opportunity to get a peek into the pandas’ secretive society that has been closed off to us in the past.”

By Dyanne Weiss

San Diego Zoo
Science News
News Scientist

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