Pandas are always using ‘social media’ even without a smartphone!

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Pandas are a common and adorable sight on social media — but did you know these bears have their own social platform too? In the remote and densely forested Wolong National Nature Reserve in China, a fascinating aspect of panda behavior has been uncovered, challenging the long-held belief that pandas are solitary creatures. Shattering previous perceptions, researchers say pandas engage actively with their family and friends, using a unique form of “social media” through scent-marking on trees.

Lead researcher Thomas Connor, working towards his doctorate at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS), spent months in the panda-inhabited forests. His task was challenging, as pandas are notoriously shy and elusive. However, Connor’s persistence paid off, revealing a complex social structure communicated through scent-marking.

“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,” says Connor in a university release. “It was pretty evident they were exchanging information through scent-marking behavior.”

A giant panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China's Szechuan Province checks on recent social postings on a scent-marking tree
A giant panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China’s Szechuan Province checks on recent social postings on a scent-marking tree. (CREDIT: Camera trap photo courtesy of Jindong Zhang)

Study co-author Ken Frank, a professor of sociometrics at MSU, likens these scent-marked trees to asynchronous communication platforms.

“Like Facebook, it’s asynchronous, meaning you don’t have to be in the same place at the same time,” explains Frank. “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.”

An unexpected but vital source of insight into the pandas’ social lives came from their feces. Pandas are prolific in their scat production, which provided Connor with a wealth of DNA data. By analyzing fresh panda poop collected over a 46-square-kilometer area, researchers could identify specific pandas near the scent-marking trees and ascertain their relationships.

This data, combined with the information from the scent-marked trees, enabled the team to map out the pandas’ social networks.

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

This approach revealed that pandas, previously thought to be loners, actually maintain a rich social tapestry, particularly evident during mating seasons.

A giant panda in China's Wolong Nature Reserve rubs scent glands against a tree used by the animals to leave messages about their status
A giant panda in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve rubs scent glands against a tree used by the animals to leave messages about their status. (CREDIT: Camera trap photo courtesy of Jindong Zhang)

The research also employed community or clique detection techniques, commonly used in analyzing human social networks, to understand panda interactions.

“It’s pretty much like high school,” says Frank. “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.”

“The discoveries in this study shed new light on how pandas use their habitat,” says study senior author Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and CSIS director. “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 study is published in the journal Ursus.

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