Panda Pillow Talk: Vocal Analysis of Captive Pandas Helps Zoologists Understand Breeding Habits

Reference: Charlton BD, Martin-Wintle MS, Owen MA, Zhang H, Swaisgood RR. 2018 Vocal behaviour predicts mating success in giant pandas. R. Soc. open sci. 5: 181323.


The Problem with Pandas

How do male pandas flirt with female pandas? They don’t. That’s the problem!

Historically, zoologists have faced a reoccurring problem when trying to breed pandas in captivity: pandas don’t want to procreate. There are several reasons why these furry beasts refrain from doing the deed. First, pandas are solitary and territorial creatures who must be separated in captivity. It’s hard to make a baby when you are by yourself, understandably.
Fig. 1 Panda eating bamboo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Another reason for the species’ low sex drive is a lack of energy. The panda spends its day lumbering around eating large quantities of bamboo. This fibrous vegetation offers little nutritional or caloric value and takes a great deal of energy to digest. As a result, the species is perpetually pooped. On the off chance that pandas decide to mate, more challenges arise. The female panda ovulates just once a year, providing a male panda with only a brief 36-40 hour window to inseminate the female. All-in-all, making a baby panda is a struggle.

In an attempt to improve captive breeding of the endangered species, researchers took a stab at decoding panda pillow talk. A team of researchers from the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, PDXWildlife, and China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda analyzed the vocal patterns of 23 resident pandas.

The scientists recorded 2,566 vocalizations produced by the pandas during 21 breeding introductions. By conducting acoustic analysis of the vocalizations and comparing the results to rates of successful or failed copulation attempts, researchers concluded that panda pillow talk plays a crucial role in determining breeding success.

A Discourse on Intercourse

Pandas make a variety of vocalizations including bleats, chirps, honks, barks, growls, roars, squeals and moans. Past research of captive pandas suggests that each of these distinct vocalizations signify something different.

The sounds include:

  • Bleats: Produced by both male and female pandas. Believed to signal non-aggressive intent.
  • Chirps: Produced primarily by female pandas in heat. Believed to signal non-aggressive intent
    and potential arousal.
  • Moans: Produced by both male and female pandas. Believed to signal mild aggression or
  • Barks and Roars: Produced by both males and females. Believed to signal aggression.

Past studies have shown that panda mate selection is partially impacted by personality compatibility. The findings from this study prove analyzing vocalizations of giant pandas give researches another tool in their arsenal to improve captive breeding of the species.

Researchers found panda hormone levels affect their vocalizations. Variations in spacing, pitch, and frequency indicate the sex and fertility of a potential mate. For example, male pandas perceive that females produce more frequent, high-pitched chirps when reaching the optimal point for insemination. This allows them to choose a mate with which they are most likely to successfully breed. However, understanding which female is the most fertile is not enough to ensure a male breeds successfully. He has to figure out if the female is interested in him. How can he tell if a lady is picking up on what he is putting down? Well, he just has to listen to her.

If she bleats, it is go time. Take off your panda pants off and get in there, partner. If she barks, RUN.

Fig. 2 Rate of successful breeding compared to type of vocalization. Source: Royal Society Publishing.
Randy Results

Researchers found both male and female pandas produced bleats during the pre-copulatory phase (meet and greet) of successful breeding introductions. Female barks, moans, and chirps proved to be mixed signals. A roar from the fairer sex resulted in guaranteed breeding failure.

Copulation Conclusion

After analyzing panda pillow talk, scientist better understand the mating behaviors of the solitary species. This breakthrough could result in safer and more successful breeding of the threatened panda population. Who knows, with this research and any luck, maybe we will see a greater number of baby pandas going viral on YouTube soon!

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Laine Farber

Laine Farber

I am recent graduate of Louisiana State University. With a background in journalism and a love of science, I have a passion for making science stories easy to understand and enjoyable to read. I am currently working in the education department of an environmental non-profit based out of New Orleans and stepping into the highly competitive freelance journalism game. When I am not rewriting a textbook or chasing down a story, you can find me walking along the lakefront, painting or feeding dry corn to ducks. For more information follow me on Twitter at @lfarber14 or Instagram @lainefarber.

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