Looking in on the secret life of pandas

Abbey Hull for redOrbit.com – @AbbeyHull4160

Who wouldn’t be fascinated with the giant pandas of the Chinese forests? To learn more about these reclusive animals, a team of researchers at Michigan State University electronically stalked five pandas in the wild via rare GPS collars from 2010 to 2012. And let me tell you, there were some surprises.

Published in the Journal of Mammalogy, MSU followed five pandas—three female adults named Mei Mei, Pan Pan, and Zhong Zhong, a young female Long Long, and a male named Chuan Chuan. While China has been very protective of their endangered pandas and had banned GPS collar use for over a decade, the researchers at MSU were able to safely capture, collar, and track these pandas and their interactions in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China.

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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, research associate at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS). “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.”

Jindong Zhang, a co-author on the paper and postdoctoral researcher at CSIS, stated that “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.”

Pandas hang out together

Known as solitary animals, the giant pandas gave way to a big surprise—they seemed to occasionally group together. Chuan Chuan, Mei Mei, and Long Long were all found in the same part of the forest at the same time, most surprisingly for several weeks in the fall and outside of the typical spring mating season.

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

The MSU team also noted that the male panda ventured across a big territory than any of the females, suggesting that he was checking in on the surrounding ladies and presenting himself with scent marking—rubbing smelly glands on trees. Seems he wants them to remember him for the spring, if you know what I mean.

Pandas have favorite restaurants and frequent them regularly

Also, they learned more about the panda’s feeding strategy, noting their apparent home range, where the panda will return and defend his or her 20 to 30 core areas in which to eat.

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Giant pandas follow their main food source—bamboo—moving from one patch to the next and returning up to six months later. It suggests they remember successful dining areas and return with the hope of regrowth, as well as the possibility of returning to communicate with other pandas in that specific area.

This study comes at a crucial time for giant pandas. The Chinese government recently issued the state of the panda conservation report, happily noting that the wild panda population has increased nearly 17 percent to 1,864 pandas, and that their habitat has improved as well. However, Jianguo “Jack” Liu, co-author and MSU Rachel Carson Chair in sustainability, notes that habitat fragmentation, climate change, and human impacts still are a threat to the panda’s future. We can only hope the panda population can continue to grow.

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