Dec 16, 2018 | Updated: 09:51 PM EST

New GPS Study Reveals Giant Pandas Hang in Packs in the Wild

Mar 27, 2015 03:44 PM EDT

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While they may have millions of admirers around the world for their unique looks and lackadaisical personalities, little is truly known about the nature of China's giant pandas in the wild. Researchers to date have sought to discover exactly how it is that these picky eaters have survived in the wild bamboo forests, but with strict laws governing who and what research is conducted on the endangered species, biologists have had little to no luck in finding out exactly what happens behind the bamboo curtains of the pandas' homes. That is, until now.

In a new study published this week in the Journal of Mammalogy researchers with Michigan State University provided the first in-depth look into the movements, behavior and patterns of life amongst the giant pandas after electronically tracking five wild pandas for more than 2 years. The troupe of pandas included three adult females (named Mei Mei, Pan Pan and Zhong Zhong), young female (Long Long) and an adult male (named Chuan Chuan). 

"Pandas are such an elusive species and it's very hard to observe them in wild, so we haven't had a good picture of where they are from one day to the next," coauthors of the study, Vanessa Hull and Jindong Zhang said. "This was a great opportunity to get a peek into the pandas' secretive society that has been closed off to us in the past."

The landmark study made great strides in conservation research in that the entire study was fully supported thanks to rare GPS tracking collars that are traditionally banned by the Chinese government. Proud protectors of the endemic giant pandas, the Chinese government has for more than a decade banned putting GPS collars on the endangered species. But in allowing the researchers to track their movements for a couple of years, they have allowed the study of pandas to flourish to new heights even the researchers had not anticipated.

Pan Pan, Mei Mei, Zhong Zhon, Long Long and Chuan Chuan were all captured, collared and tracked from 2010 to 2012 as they wandered throughout the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China. And though the giant pandas are often thought of as the loners of the bamboo forest, spending most of their time foraging for just the right type of bamboo, the study revealed a shockingly social truth. It turns out that while the giant pandas may appear to be of the asocial variety, behind closed doors they happen to hang out with one another, or at least in the same regions of forest for weeks on end.

Commingling with the females, outside of the typical mating season of Spring, Chuan Chuan broke researchers' expectations and challenged current hypotheses in the ethology of giant pandas. In fact, over the course of two years, these five friends changed what we know about pandas forever and suggested that perfects not everything is as it seems when it comes to the docile bamboo-lovers.

"We can see it clearly wasn't just a fluke, we could see they were in the same locations, which we never would have expected for that length of time and at that time of year" Hull says.

Zhang added, "This might be evidence that pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed."

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