Pandas are social animals, contrary to popular belief

Giant Pandas, famous for being solitary animals, are actually quite sociable for long periods, a new study has found. They are nowhere near as solitary as experts had previously thought, researchers from Michigan State University discovered after monitoring them with GPS collars.

Zoologists and lay people have been fascinated by the ‘reclusive’ Giant Panda. However, nobody knew much about how they spent their time in the Chinese bamboo forests… until now.

A team of researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) placed GPS collars on five Giant Pandas and spent two years monitoring their movements. Their surprising findings have been published in the Journal of Mammology (citation below).

Giant Panda

Panda in Wolong Nature Reserve. (Credit: csis.msu.edu)

Vanessa Hull, a research associate at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), said:

“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 Jindong Zhang, a CSIS post-doctoral researcher, said:

“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. 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.”

Five pandas with GPS collars

Three female adult Giant Pandas – Zhong Zhong, Mei Mei and Pan Pan, a young female Long Long, and a male Chuan Chuan, were captured, collared and monitored from 2010 to 2012 in the Wolong Nature Reserve, a protected area covering about 200,00 hectares, located in Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, in the People’s Republic of China.

China’s government, which is extremely protective of its endangered Giant Pandas, had banned putting GPS collars on them.

The MSU researchers were given a unique opportunity when authorities granted them permission to collar five animals, study their movements and observe how they interacted with one another over time.

Panda leaving scent marking

A panda advertising his presence with scent marking. (Credit: Michigan State University CSIS)

Pandas spend extended periods together

Ms. Hull and colleagues were amazed to discover that the pandas, renowned for being loners, do spend a lot of time together. Long Long, Mei Mei and Chuan Chuan were found to share the same part of the forest (near each other) for several weeks in the autumn, which is outside the usual spring mating season.

Mr. Hull said:

“We can see it clearly wasn’t just a fluke, we could see they were in the same locations, which we never would have expected for that length of time and at that time of year.”

“This might be evidence that pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed.”

The male panda ventured out further than any of the females, suggesting he probably spent time checking in on the surrounding females and rubbing his stinky glands against trees in order to advertise his presence.

According to the data the researchers had gathered and analyzed, many wild pandas appear to have a home range, which they frequently return to and defend. They also have from 20 to 30 core areas, which could be a reflection of their feeding strategy, the scientists believe.

“They pretty much sit down and eat their way out of an area, but then need to move on to the next place,” Ms. Hull said.

Pandas return to same feeding areas

Pandas are known to follow bamboo, which is virtually all they eat. When all the bamboo in one core area is eaten up they move to the next.

What this study revealed, however, is that they return to core areas after about six months, giving them time to replenish their bamboo supplies. This shows that pandas do remember good feeding areas, and go back to them anticipating regrowth.

Specific core zones may also have other importance for the animals to return to if they are communicating with neighboring pandas at certain vantage points, the authors suggest.

According to a recent Chinese government report, the wild panda population has increased by almost 17% to 1,864 individuals. The report adds that panda habitat has also improved.

However, co-author Jiangui (‘Jack’) Liu, the MSU Rachel Carson Chair in sustainability, points out that human impacts, climate change and habitat fragmentation still cast a shadow over the panda’s future outlook.

The study was partly funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Citation: Space use by endangered giant pandas,” Vanessa Hull, Jindong Zhang, Shiqiang Zhou, Jinyan Huang, Rengui Li, Dian Liu, Weihua Xu, Yan Huang, Zhiyun Ouyang, Hemin Zhang, Jianguo Liu. Journal of Mammology. DOI: 10.1093/jmammal/gyu031.

Video – Panda movements

This is an animation of the data Michigan State University researchers gathered from GPS collars attached to four wild pandas in the Wolong Nature Reserve. (Credit: Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability)

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