They’re renowned for eschewing mating for all but a few days of the year, but it seems that the courting behavior of wild giant pandas is just one more oddity to add to a long list of strange things about these peculiar bears. For most mammals, it is the males that will wander away from where they were born in search of a mate. But pandas appear to turn this on its head, and instead the females also strike out on their own.
Using data from radio-collared giant pandas roaming the Qionglai and Qinling mountain ranges in southern China, and combining it with other studies looking into the movements of the bears, the researchers were able to get a better, broader picture of how the animals use and move around their landscape. And what they discovered was somewhat surprising.
“The tendency for female natal dispersal is an interesting behavioral adaptation that is uncommon in mammals, and not found in any other bear species,” explained Thomas Connor, who led the study published in Integrative Zoology, in a statement. Usually, it is the males of the species that leave in order to avoid inbreeding with their mothers, and to find a territory of their own to defend that's not in competition with any of their relatives. However, some species buck this trend, such as African wild dogs, chimpanzees, and now it seems giant pandas.
The research shows that the females rival the males in the distances they walk during mating season, and possibly even stroll further, which goes against previous studies that suggested the females waited around for their gentlemen callers. This wide-ranging behavior is not without its risks though, as one report found that after going on a long meander, one female actually returned to her natal range starving and wounded. She later died.
Yet a myriad of questions remain, such as whether incidences of violence reported between different pandas are from territorial displays or one-offs, and whether or not signs that both sexes are playing the field and shacking up with more than one mate are the norm for the black-and-white bears. Perhaps the animals are a little more adventurous in their sex lives than what is often assumed.
“It is fascinating that in a species as well known as the giant panda, there are still so many uncertainties and unanswered questions,” said Connor. “In addition to mysteries surrounding their behavior and ecology, much remains unknown concerning the effect of human disturbance on panda individuals and populations. In a time of rapid expansion, but also considerable conservation effort in China, a better understanding of this panda-human interaction is crucial to make these efforts effective in the future.”