Loner giant pandas like to hang out, too

"We can see it clearly wasn't just a fluke," says Vanessa Hull. "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." (Credit: "panda" via Shutterstock)

The idea that pandas are reclusive loners may not be as on target as once believed.

For a new study, researchers captured, collared, and tracked five pandas from 2010 to 2012 in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China.

The Chinese government is protective of its endangered pandas and for more than a decade banned putting GPS collars on them. While a handful of studies have tracked some, this is one of the first times technology has been used that provided more detail on the pandas’ movements and how they interact with one another.

Not so solitary

“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,” says Vanessa Hull, a research associate at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University.

One of the biggest surprises: Renowned for being loners, pandas seem to want to be with other pandas, too. Three were found to be in the same part of the forest at the same time—for several weeks in the fall and outside the usual spring mating season.

“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,” Hull says.

The discovery, reported in the Journal of Mammology, suggests pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed, says coauthor and postdoctoral researchers Jindong Zhang.

Stinky glands

The GPS tracking showed a male panda moseyed across a bigger range than any of the females, perhaps spending time checking out the surrounding females and advertising his presence with scent marking—rubbing stinky glands against trees.

The surveillance also shows that while many animals in the wild have a home range, and within that a core area they frequently return to and defend, pandas have as many as 20 or 30 core areas, which might be a reflection of their feeding strategy.

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

The deeper understanding of how pandas use their space comes at an especially crucial time. The Chinese government recently issued a panda conservation report that shows the wild panda population has increased nearly 17 percent to 1,864 pandas and panda habitat also has improved.

But Jianguo “Jack” Liu, chair in sustainability and the paper’s coauthor, notes that habitat fragmentation, human impacts, and climate change still cast a shadow over the panda’s future.

The National Science Foundation and NASA funded the study.

Source: Michigan State University