Pandas are even more social than once thought — even flirting in a manner similar to human beings. Researchers had believed that they were largely solitary animals, but a new study reveals that pandas lead highly complex social lives.
Five pandas in China's Wolong Nature Reserve were fitted with GPS devices on their collars, allowing researchers to track the movement of the animals in the wild. Michigan State University (MSU) researchers then spent several months collecting and analyzing information on the movement of the pandas.
"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," said Vanessa Hull from the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) at MSU.
"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 five pandas include a male named Chuan Chuan, a young female called Long Long, and three adult females: Mei Mei, Zhong Zhong and Pan Pan. The animals were captured, collared and tracked between 2010 and 2012.
Analysis of the tracking data revealed that Mei Mei, Long Long and Chuan Chuan lived near one another in a small section of the forest during several weeks in the autumn. Pandas were believed to only live in close quarters during mating season – March through May – so this finding came as a surprise to scientists. Chuan Chuan, the lone male in the group, covered the greatest area, marking trees with scent glands, which suggests that he may have been searching for females.
Pandas tend to eat away at the bamboo in one region before heading off to another region in search of food. The animals have as many as 20 or 30 home areas within the region they inhabit. Previous investigations have revealed that pandas often follow bamboo supplies from one area to another.
China recently released a report on the state of pandas around the nation, concluding that the population rose a total of 17 percent over the last 10 years. The species faces increasing pressure to survive the loss of habitat, encroachment from humans and global climate change.
"The rise in the population of wild giant pandas is a victory for conservation and definitely one to celebrate," said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation for World Wildlife Fund.
The study of panda social behavior was published in the Journal of Mammalogy.
Photo: George Lu | Flickr