Why the dark circles? Pandas, like humans, can suffer from jet lag if they are in zoos further north than where they normally live
Just like humans, pandas can suffer from ‘jet lag’ if they are in zoos further north than where they normally live.
Research shows that giant pandas are less active in the winter months between December and March if their zoos are outside their normal geographic range.
They also exhibit higher levels of abnormal behavior, such as pacing.
Researchers now want to investigate whether pandas suffer from a form of ‘seasonal affective disorder’, which may negatively impact their mood and motivation levels, as happens in humans.
This could be caused by long, dark winter days that they do not experience in the wild in China.
Research shows that pandas can suffer from ‘jet lag’ if they are in zoos further north than where they normally live
They say zookeepers can use light and temperature to make zoos more like pandas’ natural environments.
This would prevent their biological clock from not matching the environment they are in.
This is a form of jet lag that is similar to what vacationers experience when traveling to a different time zone.
Pandas are hugely popular in Britain, thanks to the pair from China that have been on loan to Edinburgh Zoo for almost a dozen years.
Researchers have not confirmed whether they looked at the Scottish pandas, but for the study they compared the behavior of giant pandas in three zoos outside their normal latitude and two zoos within their latitude.
The pandas’ sexual behavior, such as marking objects to attract a mate or rubbing their genitals, was no different depending on whether their zoo was further north than where they usually live.
But the results do offer a tantalizing clue as to how to get pandas – which are notoriously poor at reproducing and therefore endangered – to mate with each other.
The study authors found that abnormal behavior, such as pacing, is more common in spring, when pandas normally travel long distances in search of mates.
This up and down walking also increases when pandas do not exhibit sexual behavior.
Therefore, abnormal behavior such as zoo panda pacing could be a sign of sexual frustration, the authors suggest — and a clue to when male and female pandas will be more in the mood for love.
Zookeepers could use this information to place males and females together at different times of the year so that they become more accustomed to each other’s scents and more prepared to eventually mate during the narrow one- to three-day window during which a female panda ovulates and can become pregnant every year.
Researchers now want to investigate whether pandas suffer from a form of ‘seasonal affective disorder’ that affects their mood and motivation
However, more research is needed as the abnormal behavior could also reflect frustration at not being able to migrate to find bamboo.
Kristine Gandia, who led the research at the University of Stirling, said: ‘If their internal body clocks are not synchronized with external signals such as light and temperature, animals experience adverse effects.
‘In humans, a lack of daylight can trigger seasonal affective disorder, so we’d like to understand if something similar is going on in pandas.’
The study used webcam images from zoos to monitor giant pandas day and night for a year.
They found that pandas were less active and roamed less in winter in zoos outside their normal geographic range, which appears to be related to the fact that these zoos have on average up to 10 hours less daylight per day and are colder with more fluctuating temperatures.
This may be related to some seasonal affective disorder in pandas, or simply because pandas’ internal body clocks do not correctly recognize that it is a time of year when they are normally more active in preparing for reproduction and migration to harvest bamboo find.
The researchers found no link between sexual behavior and where pandas lived, but that may be because only 11 pandas were studied.
But the changes in activity seen in northern zoos leading up to the pandas’ breeding season could potentially affect the chances of successful reproduction, so researchers say zookeepers can try to keep light and temperature levels similar to the natural environment of pandas.
The researchers now suspect that abnormal activity in zoo pandas, such as the behavior of standing on their hind legs in the morning, could be because they know a zookeeper will be feeding them.
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.