Research by scientists in the US has found the success rate of breeding pandas in captivity is hugely increased when both males and females show a preference for each other.
Studies led by conservation biologist Meghan Martin-Wintle, of the PDX Wildlife research organisation in Portland, Oregon, suggest allowing pandas to choose between more than one potential mate could improve the success of conservation programmes.
Pandas, which are endangered in the wild, have proven notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. This is partly down to the species having an extremely narrow breeding window. Females are receptive to mating for a maximum seven days once a year, and are fertile for just 24 to 36 hours.
Recent estimates suggest fewer than 3,000 wild pandas remain in central China, with conservation efforts considered crucial to their survival.
Attempts to breed giant pandas in captivity began in China in 1955, but it was not until 1963 that the first ever cub was born at Beijing Zoo.
Zoos generally have just one pair of pandas, so males do not compete for females. The animals, which are solitary by nature, are usually kept apart until the female is in heat.
The study could prove significant for Edinburgh Zoo, where there have been three failed attempts to produce Scotland’s first panda cub through artificial insemination after resident pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang repeatedly failed to mate naturally.
The PDX Wildlife team studied about 40 pandas at a conservation centre in Sichuan, where the bears were allowed to freely choose which of two potential mating partners they preferred.
There was a significant rise in mating success and cub production when individuals showed a strong preference for a particular suitor, which was further enhanced when the attraction was mutual.
Subsequent mating attempts rose from zero, when neither individual showed a preference, to more than ten out of 12 being successful.
The new findings could prove invaluable for efforts to ensure survival of the species.
“Incorporating mate choice may make a huge difference for the success of many endangered species breeding programmes, increasing cost-effectiveness and overall success,” said Ms Martin-Wintle .