Pandas use scent trees to network ‘like Facebook,’ study reveals
By Carl Samson
January 2, 2024
A new study shows that pandas mark trees with their scent to communicate with family and friends, akin to a form of social media.
Key findings: The study, which took place in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, found that giant pandas stain trees with a waxy substance to “post” updates about themselves, allowing family and friends to keep track of their whereabouts. It even helps with dating as it tells others if they are ready to mate.
How the study was conducted: Lead author Thomas Connor from Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS) spent months in the forests to observe the pandas’ scent-marking behavior. He collected their feces to extract DNA and determine the bears’ relationships with each other.
Connor teamed up with MSU Foundation Professor of Sociometrics Key Frank to identify panda communities and study their social network. According to Connor, they defined two pandas within a certain distance from each other as an “association,” which built the network for their analysis.
Social networking: The authors likened the pandas’ marking behavior to the use of social media. In one promising observation, the bears appeared to socialize with family members until they branch out during the mating season.
“These scent trees are a social media,” Frank said in a news release. “Like Facebook, it’s asynchronous, meaning you don’t have to be in the same place at the same time. 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.”
The big picture: The study sheds new light on panda behavior, suggesting that they are more sociable than previously thought. Understanding their communication methods and complex social structures would be beneficial in conservation efforts.
“Pandas are a part of coupled human and natural systems where humans share their habitat,” said senior author and CSIS Director Jianguo “Jack” Liu. “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 was published in the journal Ursus.
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