Giant pandas are a well-known animal, and its unique black and white look has long been remembered by human beings. Its calm and relaxed appearance is adored by people all over the world. However, almost all wild pandas live in old forests in deep mountains, and usually we can only see pandas in captivity.
In zoos, male and female pandas often live together in a pen. In breeding institutions with large captive populations, each adult panda is living near each other, even though there are independent pens. In the kindergartens with sub-adult pandas, you can see more often scenes of multiple pandas chasing and playing around. However, it would be wrong to easily conclude that pandas like to live in groups based on these observations alone.
The giant panda is a rare and endangered species in China. After millions of years of competition and natural selection, it stands out from the sabretooth fauna that lived in the same era and made its survival of today.
Their carnivorous nature was changed, and they gradually adapted to bamboo as their main source of food. However, they do not live in groups like herbivores such as deer, rock sheep and takin.
They still live in seclusion like some predators such as tigers and leopards. In the wild, giant pandas, known as “hermits in the bamboo forest”, are quite distant in character. They always live alone and stay in their own territory except during the breeding season. Generally, the area occupied by each giant panda is 3 to 7 square kilometers.
Although there is an overlapping of occupied areas, giant pandas consciously avoid direct contact with each other. Sometimes, two pandas walk on one place after another without chasing each other. It seems that there’s more competition than cooperation among pandas.
Animal habits are affected by many factors, including heredity and environment, and they are the results of long-term evolution. According to the Optimality Model, natural selection always tends to make animals pass on their genes most effectively, and therefore these genes become the most effective in making the animals engage in various activities.
The selected genes also make them optimal in terms of time allocation and energy use. Animals tend to retain a lifestyle that’s most favorable to their survival and reproduction. Therefore, giant pandas choose to live alone and it’s not because of their “preferences”, but it’s more suitable to their needs of survival and reproduction. It’s also a more “cost-effective” way.
Actually, why pandas like living alone? And how do they solve conflicts? Let’s find out how they live in reality.
First, giant panda’s food habits are extremely specialized. Bamboo is the most important energy source that pandas can obtain, but the nutritional value of bamboo is very low. The panda must eat a lot of bamboo to meet its daily activities.
Giant pandas are selective in eating bamboo. Not only do they choose bamboo of different ages and eating sites in different seasons, but they are also very picky about the base diameter and quality of bamboo. Giant pandas spend more than 50% of their time eating every day. On average, they consume more than ten kilograms of bamboo and eat as much as 40 kilograms during the season of bamboo shoots.
Of course, energy obtained with such difficulty cannot be wasted. All activities of animals require energy. In the cruel competition for survival, they have gradually learned to optimize various activities in order to obtain greater gains with the least energy output.
This is a strategy for their survival. In order to save energy, pandas usually move less than 500 meters a day, rarely more than 1 kilometer, and energy has become an important concern for their limitation of movement.
If giant pandas live in groups, the area where there had been only one giant panda suddenly turned into an inhabitant of seven or eight, several disadvantages would appear: 1. each giant panda will have less nutritious bamboo to eat, and they are forced to eat bamboo with poorer quality.
2. A giant panda’s bamboo, sufficient only for one panda’s energy consumption, cannot satisfy the needs of several pandas, and they have to go further to search for bamboo.
3. In order to walk less, pandas try to eat more. For example, a panda which used to eat only 5 of the 30 bamboos would eat 20 now. In turn, the bamboo forest needs to take longer for bamboo to grow back to a level that can provide sufficient food and energy for the pandas. In extreme cases, bamboo forests might be unable to grow luxuriously again, eventually resulting in a decrease in suitable living areas and an increased pressure on the survival of giant pandas.
So, what are the benefits of living in a group for the acquisition of materials and energy? In the process of migrating to find food, migratory birds’ group action would be more favorable. However, there are bamboos throughout the whole year, and pandas do not need to worry about food in winter.
They can rely on themselves to find bamboo, unlike carnivores, such as hyenas and jackals among which group hunting is a more efficient method to find food. Pandas do not need any cooperation to obtain food either. It’s without doubt that pandas like to eat alone.
Secondly, for some animals, living together is very important to their defense against enemies. For example, when bison and zebras encounter predators, they would surround the female and young individuals in the center, then turn their most powerful weapons such as horns toward their enemies.
Even big lions wouldn’t know what to do and where to bite when facing their horns. However, relatively weak herbivores such as deer often run in clusters when being hunted by predators, leaving the old and sick individuals which fall behind being preyed, leaving the healthier and stronger ones. Also, the greater the group of animals is, the greater the risk for a single one to be caught. So, do giant pandas need to live in groups to improve their chances of survival?
Adult and healthy giant pandas almost have no natural enemies, no matter whether they are male or female. With its huge body of about 100 kg, sharp claws and sharp teeth, they can show their power fully. The predators in the area where the giant pandas inhabit would not provoke them easily. Big black bears, takins, etc., have no fundamental conflict of interest with pandas, and nothing happens most of the time.
However, carnivores are indeed a deadly threat to young pandas. When they are born, the pandas weigh only 100 grams, and they needed 24 hours of constant care. Even when they are one or two years old, panda cubs are still hunting targets for leopards, wild dogs, yellow-throated marten and leopard cats.
Giant pandas’ bones and hair have been found in the feces of these beasts in the wild. In addition to their mothers’ protection, the panda also has one ability to protect itself, and that is through climbing trees. Giant pandas know how to climb trees starting from three to six months old. Except for feeding time and playing with their mothers, they almost stay on the trees.
They only come down when they hear their mothers’ voices. When they climb down, they tend to do so cautiously. When the giant panda reaches two and a half years old and weighs more than 50 kilograms, there is almost no danger of being hunted by other animals. When they become old, animals such as leopards and tadpoles would see them as preys again.
In short, weak individuals are taken care of by mothers; older individuals don’t contribute much to the population, and the investment in caring for them far exceeds potential benefits; adult individuals don’t have to worry about natural enemies.
Increasing the survival rate of the population by living in groups seems to be beneficial only to the young and the old pandas, but the effect is not huge either. Also, when considering the issue with food resources, such a decision might not be good for the population.
Thirdly, although living alone meets the needs for survival, reproduction seems to be a problem under this pattern. When they’re several kilometers or even dozens of kilometers apart from each other, how can we bring together during the breeding season?
It all depends on their communication system. Although they tend to avoid each other most of the time, by smelling the feces, urine and perianal markers in the environment, pandas clearly know the situation of other individuals in this area, including how many pandas there are, whether they’re female or male, and how old they are.
During the breeding season, the number of panda markings would increase. They apply perianal gland secretions to rough bark such as hemlock, European beech, etc., leaving a lasting and obvious mark – it’s a dark mark, with a strong smell of acetic and acidic smell. These heavily scented trees are usually located on mountain ridges and serve as “information channels” for their communication.
Information such as whether there are sexually mature pandas nearby, whether they are in estrus, how their competitors are, and so on can be obtained from their perianal markers and urine.
During the breeding season, pandas gather and greet with each other with their scent and sound signals. Male pandas roam around and gather in the realm of female pandas. They leave after mating.
The panda’s estrus season occurs from March to May, and it takes half a month from the beginning of the female’s panda estrus to the end of the mating. The estrus season of male pandas often overlaps with multiple female pandas.
Compared to pay attention to only one or several female pandas throughout the year, male pandas are more willing to invest their energy in these months to fight for mating opportunities.
However, raising panda cubs is entirely a matter of female pandas. Male pandas don’t do much in parenting, and of course they don’t need to hang out with the female pandas all the time either. Therefore, there is no reason for giant pandas to live in groups in estrus, mating and raising cubs.
Fourth, behaviors play an important role in animal survival, communication, social relations and maintenance of the development of population. Some behaviors are genetically determined, and some are affected by factors such as the environment and individual experiences.
Animals’ development generally involves the process of learning, imitating and practicing, especially some of their social behaviors. If there is no group learning environment, it is easy for an incomplete development and expression of behaviors to occur. If living in groups must be involved in the behavioral development of giant pandas, they would definitely communicate more among themselves than now.
From the study of releasing captive giant pandas to the wild environment, it seems that the most important period for giant pandas’ behavioral development is their childhood, when they need to follow their mothers. In a suitable environment, panda cubs learn most of the important behaviors from their mothers, including finding food, climbing, moving around and positioning.
In terms of communication in groups, both male and female giant pandas begin to smell the odor of other pandas and leave their own odor when they become sub-adults. As early as 1.5 years old, they would be able to distinguish the gender of other pandas only from urine odors.
Field investigations have discovered that sub-adults have also appeared in mating sites, and this situation has been discovered more than once. Under captive conditions, we observe social activities, such as sub-adults playing together.
In the wild, their social activities might be overlapped. For example, “Long Long” and “Ning Ning” which lived in Wolong in the 1980s might have communicated more than we through. Through the activities of these young and sub-adult pandas, a normal behavior and abilities of giant pandas can be established without the need for more individuals to provide a special social environment.
Considering all the above factors, living in groups does not create specific advantages for giant pandas, it might even bring them new problems like searching for food or energy consumption. When they live alone, they are free to move around, find food or mate, and giant pandas usually have their own ways to complete different missions of their lives. We can therefore understand why pandas have “become fond of” a solitary environment.