Effects of Environmental Variables on Giant Panda Behavior

Recently, new institutions both within and outside of China have started to exhibit giant pandas. Additionally, some Chinese institutions are expanding and renovating their giant panda facilities. Given this trend, it would be helpful to understand how pandas presently use enclosure space, so that new enclosures fulfill the animals’ needs for physical comfort, conspecific communication and spacing, encourage species-typical locomotor and resting patterns, facilitate naturalistic feeding and foraging, and promote appropriate social interactions, including reproductive behavior. The purpose of this study was to identify environmental features in enclosures currently housing giant pandas that best elicit natural behavior, and to determine if age and sex influence enclosure use.

Subjects of this study were 25 giant pandas (12 males, 13 females) housed at Zoo Atlanta, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and the Chengdu Zoo. Subjects ranged in age from 6 months to 18 years. Thirteen subjects (6 males, 7 females) were classified as adults (i.e., older than 5 years), 8 subjects (4 males, 4 females) were classified as sub-adults (i.e., 1-5 years old), and 4 subjects (3 males, 1 female) were classified as cubs (i.e., less than 1 year old). The subjects’ behavior and location were recorded if three conditions: indoors, outdoors, and full access to both indoor and outdoor enclosures.

Enclosure use and behavior were affected by age, but not by sex. We found that cubs and sub-adults preferred arboreality more than adult pandas, indicating that this is an important environmental feature even for young, captive animals that are not at risk of predation. We also found that when the pandas had access only to their outdoor enclosures, they were arboreal more frequently and spent less time on artificial substrates (cement and metal) than when they had access to both indoor and outdoor enclosures. Most of the subjects were housed at the Chengdu institutions, which have indoor enclosures with cement floors and lack climbing structures, and outdoor enclosures with grass, dirt, and climbing structures. We suspect that the pandas might have preferred certain features of the indoor enclosures (e.g., off-exhibit to the public, more stable temperatures, and keepers nearby) such that spending more time inside subsequently resulted in more time spent terrestrial and on artificial substrates.
With regard to behavior, in the outdoor-only and indoor-only access conditions only cubs exhibited social play, which never occurred in the full-access condition. Also in the outdoor-only and indoor-only access conditions cubs engaged in olfactory investigation of substrates and object examination more often than other age classes, and sub-adults were inactive more often than adults. Overall, the subjects spent most of their time stationary or feeding on bamboo. These results are consistent with findings on wild pandas, which show that feeding and resting take up most of an individual’s time and other activities, such as grooming and traveling, make up only a fraction of the activity budget. The subjects also spent approximately equal amounts of time distant and proximate to bamboo and to their enclosure doors, indicating they are not concentrating their activities around feeding sites or doors. All subjects usually had access to large, complex enclosures for at least a few hours each day. The subjects also had bamboo available throughout the day. This may explain why their activity budgets were similar to that of wild pandas.