Sneaky zoo panda fakes pregnancy to get more treats — again
More and more giant pandas are figuring out that pregnancy is the key to a lush zoo lifestyle
For the second time in less than a year, a giant panda is making headlines for acting pregnant to get more snacks, fancier accommodations, and round-the-clock care out of zookepers.
Taipei Zoo officials were reportedly thrilled in early June when their 11-year-old panda Yuan Yuan, who'd recently been artificially inseminated, started showing signs that the procedure had been successful.
While panda fetuses are nearly impossible to detect via ultrasound early on due to their size, Yuan Yuan was showing a loss of appetite, thickening around the uterus, and increasing levels of fecal progesterone, according to Chinese state newspaper China Daily.
This was enough for her to be deemed pregnant and, due to the rarity and importance of giant panda births, Yuan Yuan immediately started receiving specialized care to ensure that she had a healthy cub.
In other words, she was moved into the lap of luxury: a single, air-conditioned room with round-the-clock care and all of the bamboo, fruit and buns she could eat.
Yuan Yuan enjoyed her cool quarters and deluxe snack buffet for about a month until zookeepers determined through more testing that she wasn't, in fact, pregnant.
Researchers flown in from China are reported to have suggested that Yuan Yuan, who gave birth to a healthy (and very popular!) cub in 2013, may have feigned her pregnancy to get a cooler room during Taiwan's hot summer months.
It wouldn't be the first time a panda has played pregnant to reap the rewards, after all.
In August of 2014, a six-year-old giant panda named Ai Hin was accused of duping staff at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in China similarly.
One of Chengdu's experts was quoted by CNN at the time saying that "some clever pandas" notice the superior treatment expectant panda mothers receive and "have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life."
The jury is still out though, it seems, on whether these pandas explicitly deceived their caretakers.
Environmental journalist and activist Bryan Nelson took up issue with what he called "the sensational Chinese headlines" proclaiming Yuan Yuan's pregnancy this week in a blog post for the Mother Nature Network.
"Is a panda clever enough to pull off a fake pregnancy? Possibly. But it's more likely that something else is going on here," he wrote, pointing to the prevalence of what scientists call "phantom pregnancies" in pandas.
"Experts aren't sure why these pseudo-pregnancies happen in pandas, but it's likely that this was what happened in both the cases of Yuan Yuan and Ai Hin," he wrote. "Yuan Yuan's behavioural changes were likely the result of hormonal shifts that occur during a pseudo-pregnancy, not the result of manipulating for the queen treatment."
Suzanne Hall, a giant panda senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo, wrote about the pregnancy problems of pandas in 2011, long before the world had accused Ai Hin or Yuan Yuan of living lies.
"Why would a female panda experience the signs and symptoms of pregnancy even if she didn't give birth? We aren't entirely certain, but here is one theory," she wrote. "From an energetic perspective, it doesn't take much effort to slow down and allow your body to become physiologically primed to gestate a panda fetus."
"If you are a panda, which only mates once every two to three years while raising a single cub in between, it is important to have that pregnancy 'take,'" she wrote. "In the end, it could be as simple as a little cost-benefit math equation: pandas can't afford to lose the chance to reproduce, and it doesn't cost them much to be prepared."