Pandas use sexy smells to excite potential partners, say American and Chinese researchers. They think that giving these rare animals a chance to sniff each other's scents before they meet could help persuade them to mate in captivity.
At the Wolong Breeding Center in Sichuan province, China, behavioural biologist Ronald Swaisgood and his colleagues allowed pandas to visit each other's empty enclosures. The animals left scent marks and called out in response to smells left by the previous occupant.
Males much preferred female odours, especially marks left by ovulating females. "We believe the odour of oestrus enhances male arousal," says Don Lindburg who, with Swaisgood, is based at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species in San Diego. The researchers suggest that in the wild, female pandas may leave scent marks to advertise to males that they are ready for mating.
Lindburg says that breeding programmes might be more successful if the animals were allowed to explore each other's enclosures and exchange scents before actually meeting. Fewer than 30 per cent of male pandas in captivity try to mate with females they encounter.
But Stuart Chapman, international conservation officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature, says the findings will not help save wild pandas. "This research isn't the answer, as no captive-born panda has ever been released into the wild." The only way to conserve the species is to protect the panda's habitat, he says. Lindburg, however, insists that maintaining captive populations of pandas allows scientists to discover information that may be crucial to saving their wild counterparts.