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March 27, 2015

A peek at the secret life of pandas

Reclusive giant pandas fascinate the world, yet precious little is known about how they spend their time in the Chinese bamboo forests. Until now.

A team of Michigan State University researchers that has been electronically stalking five pandas in the wild, courtesy of GPS collars, has published some panda surprises in a recent Journal of Mammalogy.

“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, a research associate at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

The five pandas were captured, collared and tracked 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.

One of the biggest surprises: The pandas seem to hang together sometimes. Usually renowned for being loners, 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 said.

Maybe pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed, added Jindong Zhang, a co-author and CSIS postdoctoral researcher.

A male panda moseyed across a bigger range than any of the females, leading researchers to speculate that he spent time checking in on the surrounding females and advertising his presence with scent marking – rubbing stinky glands against trees.

Hull said they learned about a panda’s feeding strategy from this surveillance period. 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 Hull said might be a reflection of their feeding strategy.

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

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

But Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the MSU Rachel Carson Chair in sustainability and paper co-author, notes that habitat fragmentation, human impacts and climate change still cast a shadow over the panda’s future.

In addition to Hull, Zhang and Liu, Shiqiang Zhou, Jinyan Huang, Rengui Li, Dian Liu, Yan Huang and Hemin Zhang of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong; and Weihua Xu and Zhiyun Ouyang of the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

By: Sue Nichols