New study reveals the secret lives of giant pandas

Although scientists have never had much evidence to work with, it has long been thought that giant pandas in the wild were inherently lonely, reclusive animals. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) has revealed that the large bamboo-eaters are much more social than previously thought.

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Mammalogy. They tracked five pandas in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China from 2010-2012, using GPS collars. The use of tracking collars had been banned until recently by the Chinese government for protective purposes. Giant pandas are a severely endangered species, with only 1,800 individuals still living in the wild.

The researchers managed to study five pandas living on the reserve: three adult females named Pan Pan, Mei Mei, and Zhong Zhong; a young female named Long Long; and a single male, Chuan Chuan. “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,” said Jindong Zhang, a co-author of the study.

“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,” stated co-author Vanessa Hull in a press release. Hull is a research associate at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

The study revealed that the pandas typically rotated their bamboo grazing between about 30 different spots, coming back to plentiful grazing grounds after the food supply had a chance to grow back. Researchers found that the pandas would come together peacefully at adjacent grazing grounds for several weeks in autumn, well outside of the usual spring mating season. Until now, scientists thought that the pandas never sought out group socialization, preferring to munch away in isolation.

The female Mai Mai, male Chuan Chuan, and young female Long Long seemed to spend quite a bit of time together unrelated to mating behavior. “Pandas seem to be quite happy to have other pandas nearby,” said Stuart Primm of Duke University “They’re not charging around defending mutually exclusive territories.”

“We hope the Chinese government sees the value of doing this kind of study and encourages more of it in the future,” said Hull, who wishes to expand her team’s new knowledge of panda behavior.

Be social, please share!