Pandas in Zoos: ‘Jet Lag’ Affects Libido and Well-being, New Study Reveals


A recent study suggests that giant pandas in zoos may be experiencing a form of “jet lag” due to their captivity at latitudes beyond their natural range. This phenomenon, scientists say, could adversely affect their activity levels and overall welfare. The study delves into how these beloved bears are impacted by environmental cues that differ significantly from those in their native habitats, shedding light on the potential consequences for these endangered species.

Circadian Clocks and Animal Well-being

All animals, including humans, possess internal circadian clocks, which help synchronise their biological rhythms with external cues from their environment. When these internal clocks are out of sync with factors like light and temperature, it can lead to adverse effects, such as jet lag in humans. Lead author Kristine Gandia from the University of Stirling explains that studying giant pandas, which lead highly seasonal lives, provides valuable insights into the relationship between circadian clocks, well-being, and behaviour.

Pandas’ Seasonal Lives and Migration

Giant pandas have a preference for specific bamboo species, especially new shoots that emerge in spring, triggering a migration. Interestingly, this migratory season also aligns with the breeding season, making it easier for pandas to find mates when they follow the same nutritious shoots. Pandas’ popularity in zoos also means that their behaviour is closely monitored via public webcams, allowing researchers to gather data around the clock.

Zoos as a Controlled Environment

Zoos offer researchers the unique opportunity to study animals exposed to different environmental cues than those in the wild. When species are moved to latitudes outside their natural range, cues like daylight and temperature can vary significantly. This study explores how such changes may lead to a panda version of “jet lag,” especially if the pandas’ circadian rhythms depend heavily on seasonality.

Study Methodology

Gandia and her colleagues closely monitored 11 giant pandas at six zoos, both within and outside the pandas’ natural latitudinal range. Over the course of a year, they conducted hourly focal sampling to observe changes in panda behaviour throughout the day and across the seasons. The team examined general activity, sexual behaviour, and abnormal behaviour.

Key Findings

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, highlights the following key findings:

  • Daylight and temperature are crucial cues for pandas, particularly at latitudes matching their natural range in China.
  • Captive pandas displayed three activity peaks over 24 hours, including one at night, similar to their wild counterparts.
  • Adult pandas exhibit sexual behaviours during daylight hours, potentially aiding mate-finding in the wild.
  • Pandas kept outside their natural latitudes were less active, possibly due to differing daylight and temperature cues.
  • Pandas in mismatched latitudes showed fewer abnormal behaviours, potentially because they received dissimilar cues for sexual behaviours.
  • All pandas in the study responded to zoo-specific cues, becoming active in the early morning and displaying behaviours indicative of keeper anticipation.

Conclusion and Future Research

The study’s findings indicate that pandas in zoos may indeed experience a form of “jet lag” when exposed to cues that differ significantly from their natural environment. This research not only deepens our understanding of panda behaviour but also has implications for their well-being, particularly in captivity. Future research may include physiological indicators and hormonal assessments to gain further insights into the environment’s effects on panda reproduction—a critical aspect of preserving this vulnerable species.

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