Reproductive rates of giant pandas living in a zoo are substantially increased when both males and females show a preference for each other, finds a study in Nature Communications. The authors conclude that the simple method of allowing individual pandas to choose between partners could help improve the success of zoo breeding programs.
Giant pandas are an endangered species that has proven difficult to breed in captivity. Conservation reintroduction programs, which operate by matching males and females together via their genetic profiles to minimise the effects of inbreeding, are often expensive and not guaranteed to succeed.
Meghan Martin-Wintle and colleagues study the mating behaviour of about 40 pandas in Bifengxia Chinese Conservation and Research Center, Sichuan, China, where they allowed them to freely choose which of two potential mating partners they preferred, by placing an individual panda in the centre of an enclosure that gives visual access to two potential partners housed at each end. Testing with both males and females as the central panda, they find that mating success and cub production are significantly enhanced when the individual shows a strong preference for one of the two choices, and is enhanced even further when both pandas share a mutual preference.
Positive preferences were defined as individual pandas directing more than 60% of their pre-mating behaviours (such as scent-marking and chirping) towards another panda, with subsequently successful mating attempts rising from 0% when neither individual showed a preference, to more than 80% when both did (10 out of 12 mating attempts were successful). The authors conclude that incorporating mating preference trials into captive panda breeding programs could therefore prove to be a cost-effective and efficient way to ensure the continued survival of pandas through wildlife reintroductions.