Giant pandas are natually so loveable, but lovemaking doesn’t come naturally to those in captivity.
Making love often comes more easily in the animal kingdom than it does for humans. Except when it comes to one notoriously tricky species…giant panda bears.
Pandas are simple creatures in many ways—they’re happy spending their days munching on bamboo and taking plenty of naps—but making babies is quite a different matter.
Last year, China produced 32 new panda cubs in captivity—an impressive tally for a country with a captive population of 394 bears. But, it’s still rare for giant pandas to get together in a moment of sexual congress.
So why do pandas find it so tough to procreate?
Dr. Brandie Smith at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC says pandas were thriving in the wild, before humans destroyed their habitat. As Associate Director for Animal Care Sciences and “Giant Panda Curator” at the Zoo, she’s intimately acquainted with the bears’ amorous habits.
Pandas have a tiny fertility window—just one to two days each year—explains Dr Smith. That’s a lot of pressure on the bears. So they can’t afford to send mixed messages.
“A female panda has to be incredibly obvious,” says Smith. “And so her vulva swells. It turns a big, bright pink color…And if there is an available male in the neighborhood, she will turn around, lift her tail and she will back up to him.”
But for pandas in captivity, breeding is not so easy. Despite their primal urges, the bears have no one to teach them successful sexual moves.
“Their instincts are on. So, when they try to do it, they get so close…that’s what is really heartbreaking.” Dr Smith says their efforts to mate naturally usually fail.
“We call it pancaking. So she [Mei Xiang, the Zoo’s female panda] lays flat down, and you can imagine that presents a difficult target for the male,” says Smith. “An experienced male would pick her up. But Tian [Tian Tian, the Zoo’s male panda] doesn’t quite know what to do. So he just stomps on her a little bit.”
That’s when the Zoo’s fertility experts step up to artificially inseminate Mei Xiang. It’s a complex process of collecting panda pee, monitoring hormones, and timing insemination to the minute.
Despite following this painstaking protocol back in April, there are no guarantees. Even the National Zoo’s experts can’t be sure Mei Xiang is pregnant.
They just have to wait to see if a baby panda pops out later this summer.