Wild pandas have been caught on camera mating for the first time in the misty forests of the Qinling Mountains in China. Not only does the footage show pandas as we’ve never seen them before, but it also provides invaluable insights into why pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.
The stunning footage (below) was shot by Chinese filmmakers Yuanqi Wu and Jacky Poon as part of the new PBS nature documentary Pandas: Born to be Wild, which premiered on October 21.
The pair spent three years in the steep Qinling Mountains with scientists and rangers attempting to document the elusive courtship and aggressive behaviors of giant pandas. Fortunately, their efforts paid off when the team managed to witness the rare sequence of a fertile female being fought over by two males. After an arduous battle and weeks of courtship, the deed was finally done and the younger male was observed successfully mating with the female.
It’s thought that this lengthy courtship behavior involving roaring, snarling, scent-marking, and brawling might have some role in triggering the females’ ovulation. However, it’s an act that’s almost impossible to replicate outside a wild environment, which could explain why pandas often have difficulty breeding in captivity. After a decade of trying, two pandas successfully bred at a zoo in Hong Kong earlier this year, but this is considered a rarity.
Beyond the scarcely seen courtship and mating behavior, the documentary also sheds some light on other aspects of the bears' lifestyle. Pandas have a reputation for being playful and cuddly, but wild pandas are surprisingly aggressive and staunchly solitary, except during mating season when the bears travel huge distances to find company.
“The most surprising behavior that I’ve learned is how far wild pandas travel, especially in their mating season,” Poon told PBS. “I learned from books and from research that pandas stay in one area, in particular, to feed on bamboo and that they’re solitary. However, over the mating season, their territory greatly overlaps and they travel for tens of kilometers a day in search of the right mate.”
Native to a few small slivers of south-central China, giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) live on a diet of almost nothing but bamboo shoots and leaves. Since bamboo contains very little nutritional value, pandas must spend around 14 hours eating up to 38 kilograms (84 pounds) of shoots every day to meet their energy needs. The IUCN Red List considers the species “vulnerable” to extinction and estimates that there are fewer than 1,000 mature adults live in the wild. Other more optimistic estimates say there are 2,000 individuals in the wild, but either way, the species is still in trouble.
This new information may help keepers get the notoriously unromantic bears in the mood more often.