Shockingly, Pandas That Like Each Other Have More Babies Together

The deceptively simple discovery could revolutionize panda breeding

panda cubs
Mitsuaki Iwago/Minden Pictures/Corbis

According to a new study, pandas that are attracted to each other tend to have more babies.

Imagine that.

Pandas are almost comically difficult to breed in captivity, which is challenging for the conservationists and zookeepers who have dedicated their lives to helping rescue the black-and-white animals from extinction. While it might seem like a no-brainer, this discovery could revolutionize panda breeding programs around the world, Traci Watson reports for National Geographic.

One of the major problems with breeding pandas is that there are so few of them left. There are only about 2,000 pandas in the world, about 300 of which live in zoos. And when you’re trying to bring an endangered species back from the brink, it’s critical to try and keep as much genetic diversity as possible, so new generations of pandas aren’t afflicted with genetic diseases. For decades, scientists paired up potential panda parents strictly in terms of genetic diversity, Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post.

As much as zookeepers have the best of intentions for these “arranged marriages,” it shouldn’t seem surprising that the pandas aren’t interested in mating with partners they don’t like. But while researcher Meghan Martin-Wintle was studying captive pandas at the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Chengdu, she realized that breeders might be missing an important element.

“It really struck me that we had nearly eliminated mate choice from captive breeding by focusing so much on just the genetics,” Martin-Wintle tells Watson.

Martin-Wintle and her colleagues decided to experiment with letting male and female pandas sniff each other out instead of trying to force them to mate. According to the study published in the journal Nature Communications this week, male and female pandas were put in habitats that shared open, barred windows so the two could get to know each other. When the pandas were paired off, Martin-Wintle found that the pandas that showed signs of attraction were more interested in mating, while those that didn’t were less inclined. Not only that, females who were interested in their male partners were twice as likely to bear cubs as those that weren’t, Kaplan reports.

“The pay-off will be higher reproductive rates and more baby pandas,” study co-author Ronald Swaisgood tells Penny Sarchet for New Scientist. “When a zoo is struggling to get its pandas to breed, it might be possible to switch out one of the pairs to see if a behaviourally compatible pair can be found.”

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