MSU study finds nature's call unlocks giant panda conservation clues

MSU study finds nature

Giant pandas have long dominated the headlines due to their conservation appeal and challenges in breeding naturally in captivity. The fluffy, cuddly-looking bears are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. MSU researchers are trying to find ways to increase their overall success in breeding. (Photo By: Submitted)

By: Sarah Buckleitner

Abbey Wilson, a postdoctoral associate at Mississippi State, is looking for ways to help them succeed through an unusual method: decoding the chemical markers in their urine.

"It's thought that scent marks and urine contain chemical cues that are used to communicate with other pandas about things like kinship, identities and reproductive status," Wilson explained.

By analyzing urine samples, Wilson hopes to determine what each of the chemicals communicates about individual pandas.

Part of the reason giant pandas have such a hard time successfully reproducing is the small window in which the female is receptive to mating: once a year in the spring, for a period as brief as 72 hours. Wilson hopes her research will help clarify how giant pandas communicate via scents and potentially utilize that knowledge to improve captive breeding efforts.

"We want to assess the bear's physiological and behavioral responses to these chemicals to determine which compounds could be pheromones, and then use these for panda management. Ultimately, a great product from this research would be a synthetic pheromone that we can spray in captive settings to initiate sexual motivation. Finding the right chemical cues to stimulate reproductive interest would be a huge boon to captive breeding programs," Wilson said.

While most of Wilson's research has dealt with bears in captivity, where zookeepers collect urine samples from enclosures, she also was awarded a National Science Foundation: East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute for U.S. Graduate Students Fellowship to study the animals in the wild. In 2017, she traveled to the Sichuan province of China and conducted her first study with wild pandas.

The study, conducted in collaboration with China West Normal University, utilized a chemical-collecting tool called a solid-phase micro-extraction fiber, or SPME. The SPME adsorbs compounds from the environment, and can then be analyzed with gas chromatography mass spectrometry to identify the chemical components.

"The best thing about the fibers is that they allow us to passively collect compounds. We can hang fibers up at different scent-marking trees and if a panda marks it, the fiber will hopefully adsorb the volatile compounds he leaves behind," Wilson said.

Scent marking is a behavior in which the giant panda will do a "handstand" against a tree, and then rub their scent glands against the bark. It leaves a waxy substance behind that may communicate things like age, sex and reproductive status to other pandas.

Researchers also placed cameras next to each of the scent-marking trees, so that they could review footage of the SPME in action.

Wilson hopes to collect more samples from wild pandas soon and move her research to the next phase. "We hope to take what we learned from our captive studies and apply it to learning more about wild panda behavior. That's what gets me excited, linking ex-situ and in-situ conservation."

While worthy of saving in their own right, the work done to protect giant pandas' habitats and understand their biology benefits other species as well.

Darrell Sparks, an associate professor in MSU's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, spoke to how the panda functions as a flagship species.

"The giant panda is more than just another threatened species; in many ways, it is the symbol for animal conservation," Sparks said, pointing out that the World Wildlife Fund even has one in its logo.

Sparks, a Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station scientist, has been a researcher with this project from the beginning. He first served as Wilson's major professor for her doctoral research, and now is her peer as she continues her postdoctoral work.

"It was through this doctoral program that Abbey developed many of the protocols she used in her field studies with wild giant pandas in China. I am proud to be able to collaborate with her as she continues her research in new ways," Sparks said.

This research is funded by the National Science Foundation: East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute for U.S. Graduate Students Fellowship, United States Forest Service International Programs Asia-Pacific Office, and the Memphis Zoological Society.

The Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology is in MSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. For more, visit For more about the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, visit

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