Pan­das pre­fer choos­ing their own sex part­ners, re­searchers find

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Paris

Wor­ried about the low sex drive of gi­ant pan­das in zoos, sci­en­tists have tried many things to get them in the mood— in­clud­ing Vi­a­gra and “panda porn”.

When all else failed, they’ve turned to ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion to en­sure the en­dan­gered black and white crea­tures have cubs.

OnTues­day, a study sug­gested the an­swer may be a lot sim­pler and, per­haps, more ob­vi­ous: Let the pan­das choose their own mates.

“Gi­ant pan­das paired with pre­ferred part­ners have sig­nif­i­cantly higher cop­u­la­tion and birthrates,” re­searchers said in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Gen­er­ally, pan­das in cap­tiv­ity are pre­sented with a mate cho­sen by sci­en­tists based on the an­i­mals’ ge­netic pro­files. The goal is to min­i­mize in­breed­ing and ex­pand the DNA pool.

But the re­sult is of­ten frus­trat­ing, with the an­i­mals hav­ing to be coaxed through hu­man in­ter­ven­tion to show even the slight­est sex­ual in­ter­est in what­ever mate is paired with them.

A team from the United States and China ran a test at the China Con­ser­va­tion and Re­search Cen­tre for the Gi­ant Panda in Sichuan prov­ince to see if be­ing al­lowed to choose their own part­ners might make a dif­fer­ence.

Male and fe­male pan­das were housed in en­clo­sures with an­i­mals of the op­po­site sex on ei­ther side. They were al­lowed lim­ited phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion with their neigh­bors through cage bars.

Sci­en­tists mea­sured the an­i­mals’ “mate pref­er­ence be­hav­ior”, which in­cluded dif­fer­ent forms of play­ful­ness and bond­form­ing, as well as sex­ual arousal.

Neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions could in­clude signs of ag­gres­sion or a mere lack of in­ter­est.

The an­i­mals were then in­tro­duced to each other for mat­ing — with both pre­ferred and non-pre­ferred part­ners.

“The high­est re­pro­duc­tive per­for­mance was seen when both males and fe­males showed mu­tual pref­er­ence,” the re­searchers found.

The re­sults should come as no big sur­prise. Ever since Charles Dar­win pub­lished his the­ory of sex­ual se­lec­tion in 1859, sci­en­tists have un­der­stood that mate se­lec­tion is key to an­i­mal re­pro­duc­tion.

“Mate in­com­pat­i­bil­ity can im­pede cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams by re­duc­ing re­pro­duc­tive rates,” the study au­thors wrote. “It is there­fore sur­pris­ing that mate pref­er­ences have not fig­ured more promi­nently in cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams.”

“The fu­ture of con­ser­va­tion breed­ing will not take place in a test tube,” they wrote.

Con­ser­va­tion group WWF es­ti­mates there are only about 1,600 pan­das left in the wild in south-cen­tral China.

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