Sichuan province, China – Scientists studying captive breeding pandas noticed that reproductive performance increased when both male and female showed mutual preference, on the contrary lack of interest in each other would decrease the chances of producing a cub. The results of their investigations were published in the journal Nature.

Conservation breeding programmes have become an increasingly important tool to save endangered species and a group of scientists claim they have uncovered the key to guarantee reproductive activity to keep the specie. They say giant pandas paired with preferred partners have significantly higher copulation and birth rates. They assure that if managers were to incorporate mate preferences more fully into breeding management, the production of giant panda offspring might be greatly accelerated.

Giant panda mother and cub, Bai Yun and Yun Zi. Photo: A Cute Day/Green Animal World.
Giant panda mother and cub, Bai Yun and Yun Zi. Photo: A Cute Day/Green Animal World.

A team from the United States and China tested more than 40 pandas to see if being allowed to choose their own partner might make a difference. The test was run at the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Sichuan province.

Scientists measured the animals’ mate preference behavior, which included different forms of playfulness and bond-forming, as well as sexual arousal. Females showed their angiogenital region to males, put their tails in the air and walked backward toward males. Male pandas seek to attract mates by doing a handstand against a vertical surface and urinating. On the other hand, negative interactions could include signs of aggression or a mere lack of interest.

The results showed 80% chance of producing a cub, the highest reproductive performance was seen when both males and females showed mutual preference. If one of the two showed a preference for the other, the study showed there was about a 50% chance they would produce a cub. This mean, more baby pandas.

Scientist have tried everything to stimulate faster and better captive breeding but all of them have mostly failed with the animals having to be coaxed through human intervention to show even the slightest sexual interest. Scientists have even considered to relying on artificial insemination to ensure maintenance of the specie, but this study seems to reach to a much simpler solution.

“Pairs are selected to maximize maintenance of genetic diversity in the panda population. This is essential for maintaining healthy populations, and currently we have no problem with this,” Ronald Swaisgood, the institute’s director of applied animal ecology said.

China is looking to release some giant pandas back into the wild, which makes the success of panda breeding programs crucial, but conservation scientists argue, pandas belong in the wild. They claim life is risky for a captive panda brought back into the wilderness. For instance, last year, the only panda successfully released by China fell ill and died just a month after being released. Xiang Xiang, the first panda reintroduced in 2006 was found beaten to death by a wild panda one year later.

Source: Journal Nature