Above: Panda cub hanging out at the Panda Base in China

This summer I have been working with WPC and the Canadian Species Initiative on highlighting how ex situ (in human care) conservation methods can be a valuable tool for species conservation that complement and support conservation efforts for wild populations , which has made me think back fondly on my time with the giant panda behavioural research project in 2017.

I can still picture it like it was yesterday. On the ground in China, at the giant panda base with my pen, notebook, and iPad at the ready. Watching. Waiting. What interesting antics are these charismatic bears going to get up to today? What behaviours am I going to see? All to answer the most important question of how do different behaviours impact captive breeding success?

The giant panda has one of the most well known conservation breeding programs in the world, however, giant pandas in captivity have long struggled to reproduce and build up the captive population. With a breeding window of only 2-3 days a year(!), mate choice is of critical importance, and genetics alone may not be the sole determining factor in breeding. To investigate the significance of behaviour in contributing to the success of conservation breeding efforts, I assisted with a conservation-based research project using the captive population to help determine methods that can be used to benefit the wild population.

Meghan Martin, Founder and Director of PDXWildlife, who led this research project, shared her thoughts with me on the importance of conservation-based research in establishing a successful breeding program to support population reintroductions:

Conservation breeding plays a critical role in the preservation of endangered species by ensuring genetic diversity and providing a safety net against extinction. By carefully managing breeding programs and breeding behaviours to better understand the natural reproductive processes of an endangered species, we can bolster populations and create a sustainable future for these vulnerable species in their natural habitats. Understanding a species’ behaviour helps in replicating their natural breeding conditions, enhancing the success of captive breeding programs, and promoting successful reintroduction into the wild.”

Female giant panda in a tree observing male in enclosure next door reverse scent marking.

Male giant panda reverse scent marking on gate barrier, separating male from female enclosures.

Meghan and her team established a mate choice protocol for the Giant Panda where female and male pandas were matched with a preferred or non-preferred mate and reproductive success was measured. The results showed that mutual mate preference is equally important in both sexes to increase breeding success, the number of cubs born, and maternal rearing (Figures 1 and 2, Martin-Wintle et al. 2015).

Figure 1: Female conservation breeding results with preferred and non-preferred mate.

Figure 2: Male conservation breeding results with preferred and non-preferred mate.

Further research focused on how stereotypic behaviour (repetitive actions that have no value or function to an individual) influences the ability of individual pandas to reproduce. At the piant panda base, I recorded stereotypic behaviours such as pacing, head-toss, handstand, somersault, mother-cub interactions, and object play. Surprisingly, the data showed that stereotypic behaviour is not always “bad behaviour”, but can be beneficial in producing more cubs (pandas are more motivated to mate). Although, for female pandas this could also indicate that they will be less attentive when rearing cubs.

Male giant panda performing a handstand

Understanding the new-found importance of mate choice and breeding behaviours, has enabled researchers across panda bases to better manage their breeding populations. As a result, the number of cubs born has increased and some of the cubs are now part of the reintroduction program to help increase wild populations. Improving breeding success contributes to higher genetic diversity and better resilience of the population, decreasing the risk of extinction. Conservation-based research is an important role that the ex situ community such as zoos and aquariums where animals are cared for outside of their natural habitat can fulfill to support conservation and prevent extinction. Without the ex situ population (in human care) and the research on breeding behaviour, Giant Pandas may have gone extinct, but instead they are still around for future generations to love and enjoy.

To learn more about how ex situ conservation roles can help prevent extinction of species in the wild check out the Canadian Species Initiative, a partnership founded by Wildlife Preservation Canada and African Lion Safari to establish a holistic effort to identify and implement the ex situ management needs for Canadian species at risk, and ensure integration with conservation efforts in the wild.

Mother and cub.

I am excited to be observing and recording giant panda behaviour! 

Mother cuddling with her cub.

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