Giant Panda Mating Calls Say a Lot About Them

Panda love grunts are packed with information, like size of the potential mate and more, but long distance calls are less reliable

Giant pandas put it all out there when calling out for love. (Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

A sultry grunt from a giant panda that’s ready to mate says a lot more than “let’s get it on.” Their sexual utterances encode a wealth of personal information—kind of like an audible Tinder profile. As Douglas Quenqua reports for the New York Times, scientists have found that the yearning bleats of these lumbering love-bears contain crucial intel about an individual’s size and identity, signaling to potential mates up to 65 feet away.

Pandas have a spotty reputation when it comes to love. They can be infamously bad breeders in captivity, prompting researchers to get creative when setting the mood, including shuttling cubs into mandatory primers on sexual education. (Although with a team of anxious zoologists and hordes of tourists at the ready, you might have some trouble feeling sexy, too.) Many recent zoo panda births have resulted only from artificial insemination.

But decades of captive breeding and conservation efforts have paid off: In 2016, pandas finally ambled off the endangered species list. Still, these charismatic megafauna remain vulnerable with fewer than 2,000 individuals speckling the mountains of Western China, the only region where they are found in the wild, Quenqua reports, so efforts to understand their mating behavior remain critical to their preservation.

And honing in on horny pandas is no easy task. Giant pandas are naturally solitary creatures, and chance encounters often end in violence. Females go into heat for only about 24 to 72 hours each year, typically during the spring months of March through May.

But chance upon an unchaste panda, and delight will likely ensue. During mating season, giant pandas rely on odors and sounds to locate lovers. Males will even engage in a “urine-hopping” dance during which they pee without abandon into the surrounding foliage to spread their scent to females. The musk left behind can belie the urination culprit’s size, sex and hormonal state, reports Helen Briggs at BBC News. What’s more, sensual serenades can resonate through these forests in spring, surpassing in distance even the most exuberant sprays of panda pee.

Given the narrow window of female reproductive viability, understanding the information conveyed with these amorous displays is critical. And so a team led by conservation ecologist Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research set out to study the come-hither calls of pandas. Using recordings of giant pandas from Chengdu, China during breeding season, the researchers broadcasted and re-recorded bleats at various distances in a bamboo forest housed within the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

They found that within about 33 feet, these ululating bleats can betray a caller’s sex. Other traits like size can be inferred from distances of up to 65 feet.

“There are real tangible benefits to knowing who you’re dealing with when you’re out there,” explains Owen in an interview with Quenqua at the Times. This can not only help males and females find each other through the thick, but also alert pandas to the size and presence of same-sex competitors, allowing them to make informed decisions about whether or not to battle a potential rival for mates.

Unsurprisingly, the call quality—and thus the quality of the information contained within—degraded with distance. But, sadly, the decline was steep and fast. As Briggs at BBC News reports, compared to other species like African elephants, which can recognize each other through vocalizations thousands of feet away, pandas don’t seem to be built for long-distance relationships. Given their typical loner lifestyle, this seems especially disheartening.

Still, there’s valuable information in these erotic exhortations—ones that researchers may be able to recreate and enhance in captivity, especially as natural giant panda habitats continue to dwindle. Despite what a couple unfruitful zoo couplings might imply, giant pandas know what they’re doing—after all, they’ve kept themselves alive in the wild for around 3 million years.

“If they have appropriate habitats, they do breed,” Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science at the Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden, told Rachel Gross at Smithsonian.com in 2017.

But until call service improves in the bamboo forest, setting the mood may take getting pretty up close and personal.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Digital Editor at PBS NOVA and Story Collider producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus