Rare Research Unveils Secret Life of Giant Pandas in the Wild

CC BY 2.0. Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr

Little is known about how the famously reclusive giant pandas maneuver in the forests; new research reveals some surprises.

While we are a species obsessed with the goings-on of giant pandas, our preoccupation generally pertains to the inhabitants of zoos and the latest on their amorous pursuits and baby names. Likely because we really have so little information about how these reclusive giants live in the wild.

And for the most part, that’s really kind of refreshing. The Chinese government is protective of its endangered pandas and hasn’t allowed researchers a lot of freedom to study them; for example, the use of GPS collars to track their movements has been banned. But recently a team from Michigan State University were allowed to stalk a group of five with the use of GPS collars, giving the researchers rare insight into the pandas' movements and how they interact with one another over time.

"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 (CSIS). Jindong Zhang, a co-author of the paper resulting from the research adds, "This was a great opportunity to get a peek into the panda's secretive society that has been closed off to us in the past."

The five pandas – three female adults named Pan Pan, Mei Mei and Zhong Zhong, a young female Long Long and a male named Chuan Chuan – were collared and tracked for one year in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China. The team then took all of the data and crunched it to get a clear idea of just exactly what these big gals and guy do with their time.

"Once we got all the data in the computer we could see where they go and map it. It was so fascinating to sit down and watch their whole year unfold before you like a little window into their world," said Hull.

Most surprising to the researchers was that the pandas were more social than previously believed. Their reputation of being loners took a bit of a hit when the team found that three in the group – Chuan Chuan, Mei Mei and Long Long – were found in the same part of the forest for several weeks at a time, outside of 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.

"This might be evidence that pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed," Zhang added.

Chuan Chuan, the male, ambled across a larger range than any of the females, probably in a effort to keep tabs on the females and to mark territory.

They also gleaned new information about feeding strategies; a lot of animals have a home range for feeding and return to a core area. But the pandas have as many as 20 or 30 core areas, which may reflect their unique feeding style.

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

We already knew that pandas move about in search of bamboo – which makes up most of their diet. And once they eat through an area, they move on. But what the tracking revealed is that they returned to core areas after being gone for periods of up to six months, suggesting that they remember successful feeding areas and return in the hope of a fresh crop.

While the lack of this kind of research in the past has meant that pandas have not had to endure the capture and collaring that GPS tracking requires, the new understanding of how they use their space could prove invaluable. The Chinese government recently issued a report on panda conservation; and unlike so many other endangered species, the news isn’t all grim. The reports notes that the wild panda population 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, reminds us that habitat fragmentation, human impacts and climate change can not be disregarded when considering the pandas’ future. Knowing more about their secret lives can only help to ensure better protection for one of the most beloved creatures on the planet.