Helping each other out

Pandas in the wild are typically solitary animals. Females tend to not tolerate other females within their territory, while others interact primarily only during the short mating season, with males competing with each other over females, and males/females only making contact during mating itself. This makes the interaction between two pandas at Bifengxia all the more fascinating.

Webcam footage captured a surprisingly complex exchange between the two. We see panda 1 on the ground, panda 2 on a ledge above. Panda 2 attempts to climb down a ladder to ground level, losing its footing and getting its body completely stuck between two rungs, leaving it helpless on its back, limbs flailing in the air. Panda 1, without hesitation, then proceeds to get up and stand under the ladder and under its companion’s back for support. When that fails, panda 1 with almost human-like dexterity stands up on its hind legs, pulls the other out of the ladder, and helps it safely onto the ground. Panda 2 is clearly stunned from the ordeal and grateful for the help of its friend, as they spend several moments snuggling affectionately, then playfully rolling around together.

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From this observation it is fairly clear that the animals’ interactions within their own species are far different from anything seen in the wild. Their ability to bond in this way is specific to living in captivity - as previously stated, pandas are typically solitary. Due to factors such as having few natural predators, mother-only parental care, competition over food sources, and a low energy diet and lifestyle, adults would have little benefit from face-to-face interactions in the wild.

However, certain challenges in the wild are eliminated in captivity (primarily mate, den, and food competition). This may explain the social bond, as a scenario has essentially been created in which they would have little reason to show aggression towards others in their species.

Regarding the first panda’s jump into action when help was needed -  pandas have demonstrated the ability to learn based on observation both in captivity (e.g. training methods used prior to release in the wild, videos demonstrating the mating process to males), as well as in the wild (e.g. mating behaviors learned via immature males’ observation of a dominant mature male). The problem of falling through the ladder is clearly one that would not occur in nature, though panda 1 may have understood panda 2’s distress via vocal communication. Perhaps panda 1’s action came from observed behaviors in humans, other pandas, or by previous experience. Or perhaps it would be more reasonable to consider this a demonstration of trial-and-error insight learning?

Giant Panda - Observations from Bifengxia

Since its completion in 2003, the Bifengxia Panda Center at Ya’an City, Sichuan Province, China has become the world’s largest panda reserve and research center. It covers 988 acres and includes several large outdoor/indoor enclosures spread over the area.

Webcams of several of these enclosures are available for viewing at explore.org.

Some initial observations…

Eating/foraging:
-Majority of time was spent eating bamboo (pandas may spend 12 hours a day eating). They would typically eat either sitting upright, gripping the bamboo stalks with their front paws and “pseudo-thumb” (a small thumb-like appendage that helps them grasp the stalks), or lying on their backs. They appear to expend little energy on foraging in captivity; however, bamboo is a low-energy food source and thus requires a large quantity to fulfill their daily needs.

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Young panda interactions:
-Young pandas (under 2 years) cared for in their own enclosure were observed following and/or rubbing up against human caretakers who entered the pen to feed them.

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Adult panda interactions:
-Though typically solitary and otherwise competitive in the wild, pandas observed together were amicable and would often be seen wrestling and playing together in groups of 2 or more, cuddling, sitting and eating side-by-side, and climbing/playing on jungle gym-like structures.