Conservation Matchmaking

By Lisa Horn

Anybody who has had a pet cat or dog can attest to their pet’s unique quirks that made them, well, them. My golden retriever Ginger was probably the sweetest dog I’ve ever known, eager to please at all times, but completely unable to control her excitement about meeting new people and dogs. This meant that firm commands of “No!” and “Stay!” went almost reluctantly ignored as she bounded towards strangers on walks. Shelby, on the other hand, despite being the same breed, requires no encouragement to keep a respectful distance from unwilling strangers, preferring to take a wide detour around any strange person (or dog) coming her way.

One thing is pretty clear: our furry friends have personality. And this fact may be key to the success of conservation breeding programs.

For endangered species, breeding in the artificial confines of a zoo is not always as easy as putting a male and female of a species together and then welcoming babies into the world. The truth is that, just like us, wild animals can be very selective about their mates, which is one of the reasons why conservation breeding can be so challenging. Romantic unions in these programs are often the result of decisions based on things like genetic traits and health, without much regard for what the animals naturally prefer.  Although we know that personality can have a big impact on choosing mates and breeding, it has only recently been added to the conservation tool kit.

Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. Photo Credit: Pandas International.

The giant panda is an iconic poster child for conservation, but also has the reputation of being notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. Desperate zookeepers have tried a variety of unconventional methods, like instructional videos (for adult pandas only) and Viagra, with limited success. Is it possible that a simple lack of compatibility between the chosen couples could be to blame for the failure of matchmaking attempts? In a paper published in Biological Conservation, Meghan Martin-Wintle and her team wanted to find out.

While we can simply take an online personality test to give us insight into ourselves, animal researchers need to take a slightly different approach. Since zookeepers develop an intimate understanding of their animal charges, the researchers asked panda caretakers to fill out questionnaires.  Each panda was rated for a variety of traits like ‘calm’, ‘curious’, or ‘bad-tempered’ compared to all the pandas the caretakers have known. The researchers also did experiments to see how each panda responded to novelty.  Strange objects, like a big chunk of ice or a massive rubber ball, were put in the enclosure. Each panda had to decide whether these unfamiliar objects were something to worry about, something to play with, or something to ignore completely.

The surveys and experiments were used to classify pandas into personality categories, considering their aggressiveness, drive to explore, excitability, fearfulness, and general activity levels. This is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Big Five’ personality test in humans.  The idea is that several key underlying traits help to make up a person’s (or panda’s) overall personality.

With personality profiles in hand, the researchers played matchmaker. A panda might be selective about the personality of their potential partner because they may receive clues about their genetic compatibility or overall quality. It’s also possible that compatible couples simply find it easier to successfully coordinate the whole performance of mating. To find out how good of a match a pair was, the researchers needed to watch for two things: did they successfully mate, and were cubs produced?

Some personality pairings turned out to be a much better match for each other than others. Sometimes opposites attracted. Less aggressive females paired with more aggressive males were a winning combination. These pairs mated more successfully and had a higher probability of producing cubs. In wild giant pandas, aggression between males while competing for females is common, so it makes sense that aggressive males mated more successfully.

For other combinations, it was better to have some common ground. Pairs with similar scores for neophobia (the fear of anything new) were found to be a good match. Interestingly, some personality traits, like ‘high fearfulness’, especially in males, were never good and hindered successful mating. This doesn’t mean that fearful males will end up bachelors forever, but zookeepers might need to find ways to help these bears overcome their anxiety.

This panda cub is the result of over 40 years of matchmaking and breeding work in one of the world’s foremost panda conservation programs at the Smithsonian Zoo.

 

From their results, the researchers came up with a handy matchmaking cheat sheet for panda personality combinations. Understanding the importance of personality and compatibility may be one part of the puzzle to reaching conservation breeding goals for other groups of animals as well, like amphibians, the world’s most endangered vertebrates.

 

Just like pandas, pets, and people, even amphibians can be bold or shy, inquisitive or indifferent, and active or idle. Conservation breeding is an often-used method in the management of endangered amphibians, like the Oregon spotted frog, and their love lives are already making the news. Take Romeo the Sehuencas water frog for example, made famous by his online dating profile, who had spent 10 years waiting for any other female of his kind to be found. Conservation scientists recently found two females deep in the rainforest. We can only hope that when Romeo finally meets these new Juliets, they won’t lack the required chemistry to save his species. Other amphibians in conservation breeding programs may not have to resort to Match.com to find a partner. But paying closer attention to the importance of personality in matchmaking may turn failures into successes and help prevent amphibian species from going extinct.

 


Martin-Wintle MS, Shepherdson D, Zhang G, Huang Y, Luo B, Swaisgood RR. 2017. Do opposites attract? Effects of personality matching in breeding pairs of captive giant pandas on reproductive success. Biological Conservation Volume 207, Issue 16, 20 March 2017, Pages 27-37

Get access to the published paper 


Lisa Horn

Lisa Horn

Guest Blogger – MSc Candidate at York University in the Stutchbury Lab

Lisa is an ecologist with a passion for wildlife and conservation. Lisa has wide-ranging experience in conducting ecological inventories, assessing environmental impact of proposed developments, and navigating the framework of environmental legislation. She has a special interest in ornithology and species at risk and is currently investigating the effects of climate change in wintering habitats of migratory songbirds on their arrival condition in Ontario.