Effects of season and social interaction on fecal testosterone metabolites in wild male giant pandas: implications for energetics and mating strategies
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In the first-ever study of reproductive endocrinology in wild male giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), we provide new insights into the reproductive ecology of the species. We tracked and observed pandas in Foping Nature Reserve of the Qinling Mountains for 3 years, collecting fecal samples for testosterone metabolite analysis and data on reproductive activity. Males encountered multiple potential mates and competed for reproductive access to females. Male testosterone metabolites increased in February, peaked in March and April, and fell back to baseline after the mating season. However, males did not maintain a high testosterone level throughout the mating season. Male testosterone instead peaked during encounters with potential mates and declined between encounters. These results indicate that testicular activity is typically dormant until mobilized by interactions with females and potentially by interactions with male competitors. This suggests that male pandas may be energetically constrained, elevating testosterone levels only when necessary to meet the demands of intrasexual competition and courtship and fertilization of females. Maintaining a high testosterone level is metabolically expensive and male pandas enter the mating season during a period of low food availability. If this hypothesis is correct, male panda body condition may be an important determinant of reproductive outcome, and anthropogenic activities that diminish foraging resources may have significant impacts on the mating ecology of the species, affecting its conservation.