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Secret social lives: Pandas have their own version of Facebook

In a recent study conducted in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, researchers have made a remarkable discovery about the social lives of pandas. The experts found that pandas, traditionally viewed as solitary creatures, actually maintain social networks much like humans do.

Studying panda social lives

The study was led by Thomas Connor for his PhD at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS).

Connor spent months in the forest looking for signs of pandas. His work was built on previous observations by MSU-CSIS scientists who suspected that pandas are not the loners that everyone thinks they are. 

The research has produced surprising new details about a unique method of communication used by pandas – scent marking on trees.

“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 Connor. “It was pretty evident they were exchanging information through scent marking behavior.”

Pandas practice social networking

The research suggests that these scent-marking trees act as a social media platform for pandas, like Facebook for the animal kingdom. Pandas use these trees to keep track of family and friends, share updates on life events, and even explore potential mates. 

This method of communication is asynchronous, allowing pandas to broadcast information without being in the same place at the same time.

Connor teamed up with MSU Foundation Professor of Sociometrics Ken Frank, an expert on social networks and a co-author of the article.

The researchers did not have a camera on a bear every time it sniffed a tree, so they did not know which pandas were interacting.

“That’s a key part,” said Professor Frank. “I told him that once he has data on which bears are close to each other we can use the techniques and theories that apply to humans to understand their social networks.

“And these scent trees are a social media. 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.”

Clues in panda poop

One of the most innovative aspects of Connor’s research involved analyzing panda poop. Given that pandas defecate about 90 times a day, their scat offers a wealth of data. 

By collecting and examining fresh panda scat, Connor and his team were able to extract DNA to identify specific pandas in the vicinity of the scent-marking trees. This allowed them to determine relationships between individual pandas and construct their social networks.

“We defined two panda individuals within a certain distance from each other as an association,” said Connor. “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.”

According to Frank, once they could determine which bears were in close proximity, they could apply the social network technique of community or 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.”

Exchanging valuable information 

Ultimately, the study revealed that pandas are far from reclusive. They form associations and exchange information through chemical scent signatures left on trees.

Interestingly, the experts observed that pandas tend to associate more with family members during non-mating seasons and broaden their social circles in mating seasons, possibly using the scent-marking trees as a territorial map. This behavioral shift is significant in preventing inbreeding and reducing competition among pandas.

Study senior author Jianguo “Jack” Liu emphasized the importance of the research. 

“The discoveries in this study shed new light on how pandas use their habitat,” said Liu. “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 is published in the journal Ursus.


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