The highs and lows of chemical communication in giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca): effect of scent deposition height on signal discrimination

Abstract.

The giant panda's (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) social system is not well known, but it is clear that competition and avoidance characterizes social interaction for this solitary species throughout most of the year. Chemical communication appears to play a major role in structuring these interactions. Pandas adopt four distinct marking postures that deposit anogenital gland secretions or urine at varying heights: squat, reverse, legcock and handstand. In this experiment we tested the behavioral responses of 28 captive pandas belonging to all age-sex groups to conspecific odors placed to mimic the height of these postures. We tested three odor stimuli: male urine, and male and female glandular secretions. In all cases, pandas spent more time investigating higher odors than lower odors, suggesting that pandas place more importance on gathering information about individuals that adopt elevated postures. Pandas, particularly subadult males, also showed evidence of avoiding areas where adult male urine was deposited to mimic the handstand posture. Based on these and other findings, we propose that elevated postures in pandas may function to communicate competitive ability and possibly aggressive intent. Height of odor deposition, especially in the handstand posture, may be associated with body size, a major determinant of competitive ability. Selection may favor signalers that capitalize on the assessment activities of assessors by depositing scents to emphasize height cues. If such signals of competitive ability are used to mediate aggressive interactions, subsequent selection may favor their use only when the signaler is prepared to escalate in a contest.

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White, A.M., Swaisgood, R.R. & Zhang, H. The highs and lows of chemical communication in giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca): effect of scent deposition height on signal discrimination. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 51, 519–529 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-002-0473-3

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  • Chemical communication Competitive ability Giant panda Signal evolution