Do Pandas Fake Pregnancy?

Are pandas capable of faking a pregnancy for the benefits?. J. Patrick Fischer [CC by 3.0]/Wiki Commons

Giant pandas have incredibly low birth rates, so there's often a great deal of excitement when a captive female gets pregnant. In fact, a panda's pregnancy is treated as such a special event that expectant mothers often get showered with better food and care.

This is also true at the Taipei Zoo, where pregnant females typically get moved to single rooms with air conditioning and get pampered around the clock. So when resident panda Yuan Yuan recently began showing all the signs of being with child — loss of appetite, thickening of the uterus, rising concentrations of progesterone — caretakers did everything they could to make her more comfortable and well fed.

There was only one catch. Yuan Yuan was faking the whole thing, apparently in order to reap all the benefits, reports the Huffington Post. Or at least, that's what some zoo officials have claimed.

Last year, another female panda named Ai Hin was accused of trying to perform the same trick. She was allegedly able to pull off her charade for two whole months before caretakers finally caught on.

"After showing prenatal signs, the [panda] 'mothers-to-be' are [pampered]," claimed Wu Kongju, an expert at the Chengdu Research Base, to CNN. "So some clever pandas have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life."

Is a panda clever enough to pull off a fake pregnancy? Possibly. But it's more likely that something else is going on here.

According to panda expert Zhang Heming, director of the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda, pseudo-pregnancies among panda females are fairly common, both in the wild (where pandas are not pampered) and in captivity. In other words, false pregnancies appear to be a natural phenomenon in giant pandas, not a conniving ploy.

"This phenomenon occurs in 10 to 20 percent of pandas," said Heming. "After the mother panda is inseminated, if her health isn't so good, the pregnancy will terminate, but she'll still behave as if she's pregnant."

Experts aren't sure why these pseudo-pregnancies happen in pandas, but it's likely that this was what happened in both the cases of Yuan Yuan and Ai Hin — in spite of the sensational Chinese headlines to the contrary. Yuan Yuan's behavioral changes were likely the result of hormonal shifts that occur during a pseudo-pregnancy, not the result of manipulating for the queen treatment.