Pandas may suffer ‘jetlag’ just like people, if they are in zoos further north than where they normally live.
Giant pandas are less active in the winter months between December and March if their zoos are outside their normal geographical range, a study has found.
They also display higher levels of abnormal behaviour, like pacing.
Researchers now want to investigate if pandas suffer from a form of ‘seasonal affective disorder’, potentially negatively affecting their mood and motivation levels, as happens with people.
This could be caused by long, dark winter days which they would not experience in the wild in China.
Pandas may suffer ‘jetlag’ if they are in zoos further north than where they normally live, a study has suggested
They say zookeepers could use light and temperature to make zoos more like pandas’ natural environment.
This would avoid the mismatch of their body clocks with the environment they are in.
This is a form of jet lag similar to what holidaymakers experience when they travel to another time zone.
Pandas are extremely popular in the UK, thanks to the pair from China which have been on loan to Edinburgh Zoo for almost 12 years.
Researchers have not confirmed if they looked at the Scottish pandas, but compared the behaviours of giant pandas at three zoos outside their normal geographical latitude and two zoos within their latitude for the study.
The sexual behaviour of the pandas, like scent-marking objects to attract a mate or rubbing their private parts, was no different depending on whether their zoo was further north than they usually live.
But the results do provide a tantalising clue of how to get pandas – which are notoriously bad at breeding and therefore endangered – to mate with each other.
Authors of the study found that abnormal behaviours, such as pacing, are more common in the spring – when pandas would normally travel long distances looking for mates.
This walking up and down also tends to increase when pandas are not displaying sexual behaviours.
Therefore abnormal behaviours like pacing demonstrated by zoo pandas could be a sign of sexual frustration, the authors suggest – and a clue of when male and female pandas will be more in the mood for love.
Zookeepers could use this information to put males and females together at various times in the year, so they become more used to each others’ scents, and more willing to finally mate during the narrow one to three-day window that a female panda ovulates and can become pregnant every year.
Researchers now want to investigate if pandas suffer from a form of ‘seasonal affective disorder’ which affects their mood and motivation
However more research is needed, as the abnormal behaviour could also be frustration felt towards not being able to migrate to find bamboo.
Kristine Gandia, who led the study from the University of Stirling, said: ‘When their internal body clocks are not synchronised with external cues like light and temperature, animals experience adverse effects.
‘In humans, a lack of daylight can cause seasonal affective disorder, so we would like to understand if something similar is happening with pandas.’
The study used webcam footage from zoos to monitor giant pandas during the day and night for a year.
They found pandas were less active and walked around less in zoos outside their normal geographical range during the winter, which appears to be linked to these zoos having up to 10 hours less daylight a day on average, and being colder with more widely fluctuating temperatures.
This may be linked to some kind of pandas seasonal affective disorder, or just be because pandas’ internal body clocks do not correctly recognise it is a time of year when they are normally more active in preparation for breeding and migration to find bamboo.
The researchers did not find a link between sexual behaviour and where pandas lived, but that may be because only 11 pandas were studied.
But the changes in activity seen in northerly zoos, leading in to the panda breeding season, could potentially affect the chances of breeding successfully, so researchers say zookeepers could try to keep light and temperature levels similar to pandas’ natural environment.
The researchers now suspect abnormal activity in zoo pandas, like the behaviour of standing on their hind legs in the morning, could be because they know that is when a zookeeper is about to feed them.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.