Over the past three years, I have been collecting audio recordings of giant pandas in San Diego and China. On Friday, April 16, 2011, I was able to record Bai Yun and Gao Gao during their breeding interactions. Giant pandas are primarily only vocal during the breeding season and use this form of communication as a type of courtship. A recording has been provided so that readers can have a listen.[audio:http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/sounds/panda_courtship.mp3]
In the clip, Gao Gao is bleating (sheep-like sound), and Bai Yun is chirping in response. Recordings like these have provided extensive information for our research and collaborative efforts with Zoo Atlanta and China.
For example, we have learned that giant pandas can identify the difference between bleats of different individuals. The bleat also sends information about the caller’s sex, age, body size, and genetic relationship (kinship). Also, the length of Gao Gao’s bleat tells Bai Yun about the level of androgen (testosterone) in his body; the longer he calls, the better. Gao Gao is an excellent bleater, and I’m sure that only adds to why he is such an excellent breeder.
In addition, Bai Yun relays information in her chirp that informs Gao Gao about when she is ready to breed. We have learned that the female chirp acoustically changes over the course of her estrus period (10 to 14 days). This change allows the male to know when the female is going to ovulate and when it’s time to breed.
Our research with giant panda vocalizations is still ongoing, and there will be more information to share later this year.
Jennifer Keating is a research scientist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas in China: One Year Later.