It's hard not to love a panda. Furry and cuddly looking, playful even as adults, and with eye patches that make their eyes seem enormous, pandas have sparked the fascination of people around the world. But despite that interest, the panda remains an endangered species, with only roughly 1,000 remaining.

However, experimental psychologists are in the thick of a new spate of basic and applied research to learn more about the giant panda in captivity and the wild. They're collaborating with biologists, veterinarians, ecologists and other scientists, as well as with their counterparts in China, where most of the world's remaining pandas live. Together, they are examining how these solitary animals develop as cubs, reproduce, tend their young, forage and interact with each other.

The hope is that new knowledge will inform efforts to save the giant panda, help keepers improve the quality of life of captive pandas and explain zoos' difficulties in getting captive pandas to mate--an essential element in repopulating the species.

"The wild population is still threatened and endangered because of habitat loss," explains psychologist Rebecca Snyder, PhD, curator of giant panda research and management at Zoo Atlanta. "It's important to preserve those animals in the wild and not drain that population further."

International collaboration

Snyder and her colleagues at Zoo Atlanta and Georgia Tech's experimental psychology program are at the center of giant panda behavioral work. The two institutions have been closely linked since professor Terry L. Maple, PhD, took the helm of the zoo in 1984, a position he held until recently, when he decided to return to Georgia Tech full time. Throughout his tenure, Maple made comparative, experimental and basic behavioral research a priority, and the zoo's panda research program is no exception.

"Behavior is a critical feature of animal management," he explains. "It's not just that we're interested in the animal and want to understand it, but we also want to manage it more humanely."

In 1997, Maple helped the zoo establish a research collaboration with the Chengdu Zoo and Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in the Sichuan province of China. Combined, the two sites have the second largest captive panda population in the world--about 40 animals.

"There are a number of scientists on the staff in Chengdu working on a lot of different issues--nutrition, genetics, reproductive physiology and health issues," says Snyder. "But there was not anybody looking at animal behavior."

Maple tapped Snyder, then a fifth-year Georgia Tech graduate student, to head up the collaboration in Chengdu. She was the first to travel there; on that trip, she worked with Chinese scientists and veterinarians to iron out a research plan that would tap Zoo Atlanta's expertise and send other Georgia Tech graduate students to collect behavioral data. Since then, a half-dozen students have traveled to Chengdu. And, in 1999, China sent giant pandas Yang Yang and Lun Lun to the zoo for a long-term research loan.

Learning about pandas

Today, Snyder is seeing the fruits of the collaboration. In a recent issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology (Vol. 117, No. 3), the research group published the first study of giant panda cub-rearing and separation (see Raising panda cubs in captivity). The study is the first step in examining the impact of a common breeding practice in China: separating captive cubs before they are six months old so that the mothers will be able to reproduce again sooner. Cubs in the wild stay with their mothers for 1.5 to 2.5 years.

Snyder and her co-authors, including Maple and psychologist Mollie Bloomsmith, PhD, theorize that separating cubs from their mothers too early may harm their social development, and could underlie why so many captive pandas fail to breed. Captive males often show little sexual interest in females, or are too aggressive.

The research team has also conducted urinary and behavioral analyses of female giant pandas during the breeding season, which is generally in the spring, and is examining the behavior of giant panda mothers. Graduate student Megan Wilson, who also has worked in Chengdu, is investigating sequences of play-fighting for her dissertation. And former graduate student and Chengdu researcher Loraine Tarou, PhD, examined giant panda cognition.

Tarou, now an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, is the first to examine how captive pandas forage for food and learn to adapt to changes in their environment. She compared her findings with the cognition of the spectacled bear, and found that while both use spatial memory to find food, the spectacled bears used visual cues the pandas did not pick up on.

The finding indicates that giant pandas' reliance on spatial memory alone may cause them to have difficulty when their food sources are abruptly changed or moved--a big problem for an animal that consumes nearly 30 pounds of bamboo a day.

While such basic research may not have immediate application, says Tarou, it's contributing to scientists' growing knowledge of the species.

Her hope is that such research will gradually add up to provide them with the big picture--and some answers as to how to save one of the world's most treasured animals.

Read about Megan Wilson's trip to China to conduct panda research in the January issue of gradPSYCH.