Giant pandas have their own 'Facebook' to chat to other bears

Giant pandas have their own 'Facebook' to chat to other bears
Trees aren't just awkward sleeping spots for these bashful bears
Trees aren't just awkward sleeping spots for these bashful bears
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Trees aren't just awkward sleeping spots for these bashful bears
Trees aren't just awkward sleeping spots for these bashful bears

Scientists have discovered that the giant panda, long considered a bit of a loner, has a surprisingly active social life, communicating with friends and family in a way that's akin to sharing status updates on Facebook.

It’s a new insight into the everyday lives of these shy and elusive bears (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), which were previously thought to be a shy, solitary and rather antisocial species.

In the study on bears in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers focused instead on the trees, because it was on certain trees the animals would leave scent signals for others. And the messages turned out to be surprisingly complex.

"Once you've gotten an eye for it, you can see on ridge tops and different trails the scent-marking trees, which are stained with a waxy substance – and the pandas seem to be doing this a lot," said lead author Thomas Connor. "It was pretty evident they were exchanging information through scent-marking behavior."

While scent marking is not a new phenomenon – anyone who has walked a dog that insists on stopping at every post along the way will know this well – this study reveals that there’s a lot more going on with panda communication than earlier thought.

"These scent trees are a social media,” said Ken Frank, a professor of sociometrics at MSU. “Like Facebook, it's asynchronous, meaning you don't have to be in the same place at the same time. It allows one to broadcast to many, and it's a record. A panda marking a tree isn't so different from a Facebook post."

While they may not be posting about conspiracy theories or sharing cat memes like a human social media network, the pandas can let others known they frequent the territory by 'checking in' to that tree, and they can leave details about sex, age, breeding status, personality and physical size.

The researchers, who built on earlier MSU work that tracked the movements of five pandas from 2010 to 2012 in the reserve, confirmed their social media theory by analyzing panda poop to untangle the communication networks. With a single adult panda pooping somewhere between 40 and 90 times each day, there was an abundance of scat available for testing, and its prevalence could also help establish tree-marking timelines.

The team extracted DNA from fresh scat collected across 46 square kilometers (17.8 square miles) to identify individual pandas and determine if they were related to others stopping by the same trees to ‘post’.

"We defined two panda individuals within a certain distance from each other as an association,” Connor said. "Even if they're not directly communicating or running into each other physically – they can exchange information in the chemical scent signature. That built up the social network for the analysis."

Then, the bears present in any given area could then be looked at through a social network analysis method known as clique detection.

"It's pretty much like high school," Frank said. "And like in high school, cliques have lots of implications. There are strong norms within a clique – and while encountering those outside a clique is rare, the information can be very important."

By smelling a marked tree, a panda can determine if it’s met the posters before, and pick up other cues such as sex, dominance, size and whether they’re ready for mating – all traits that can help another individual ‘read the room’ without being in the presence of another bear.

And, interestingly, the researchers discovered that panda behavior changed throughout the year. The animals preferred to communicate with close family members for most of the time, but when breeding season arrived, there was much more chatter from new connections. The scientists believe this is both to mark territory, using the trees like a map, and to discourage inbreeding and energy-sapping, risky mate competition.

Given that a female panda has a small annual window where breeding can be successful – somewhere between 24 and 72 hours – effective communication is crucial, particularly for a species that, for the most part, likes to be on their own a lot of the time.

"The discoveries in this study shed new light on how pandas use their habitat," said senior author Jianguo Liu from MSU. "Pandas are a part of coupled human and natural systems where humans share their habitat. Anything we can learn about how they live and what they need can ultimately help inform good conservation policies and maybe understand our own behavior a little more.

The research was published in the journal Ursus.

Source: Michigan State University

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