Pandas love ‘social media’, study finds

Credit: Sid Balachandran / Unsplash.

Pandas, traditionally seen as solitary animals, are actually more social than previously thought, engaging in a form of communication that resembles a bear version of social media.

This intriguing insight comes from a study conducted in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, a place where pandas live hidden from human eyes due to their shyness and the remote, dense forests they inhabit.

Thomas Connor, the study’s lead author, embarked on this research for his PhD at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

By observing the environment, Connor noticed trees marked with a waxy substance, a sign of pandas’ scent-marking behavior. This discovery built upon earlier suspicions from MSU-CSIS scientists that pandas might not be as solitary as once believed.

The study, published in the journal Ursus, reveals that pandas use scent marking on trees to communicate with both family members and friends, sharing updates about their lives and even exploring potential mating opportunities.

It’s a way for pandas to keep in touch without needing to meet in person, allowing them to broadcast messages to many others and leave a record of their presence and status.

To delve deeper into the pandas’ social structure, Connor collected fresh panda poop, which is surprisingly informative due to the sheer volume pandas produce daily.

From the DNA extracted from the scat, researchers could identify specific pandas near the marked trees and determine if they were related.

This information, combined with the data on scent-marking trees, provided insights into the pandas’ social networks.

The researchers used social network techniques to analyze the proximity of different pandas to each other, defining associations based on distance.

This approach revealed the existence of panda cliques or communities, much like social groups in humans. These findings challenge the notion of pandas as loners, showing they maintain complex social networks through chemical communication.

Interestingly, the study suggests that pandas tend to stick with family members outside of mating seasons but expand their social circles when it’s time to find a mate, possibly to avoid inbreeding and reduce competition.

This behavioral insight, although based on a preliminary analysis with a small sample size, opens new avenues for understanding panda social dynamics.

The implications of this research extend beyond academic curiosity. Understanding how pandas communicate and organize socially can inform conservation policies and efforts to protect these beloved animals.

The study not only sheds light on the hidden social lives of pandas but also offers a glimpse into the interconnectedness of humans and nature.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, this work contributes to our knowledge of pandas and the ecosystems they inhabit, emphasizing the importance of informed conservation strategies to ensure their survival.

The research findings can be found in the journal Ursus.

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