Giant pandas living in zoos may suffer from ‘jet lag’, study says

By | September 18, 2023

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advances, and more.

Giant pandas living in captivity could suffer from “jet lag” if their body clock doesn’t match the environment they live in, scientists say.

This could have a significant impact on the well-being and behavior of endangered species, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Like all animals, pandas have a circadian clock – an internal body clock that runs in approximately 24-hour cycles – and is regulated by signals from their environment. But problems arise when the stimuli they are exposed to in captivity do not match those in their natural environment, the study found.

This could be very significant when considering the welfare of animals in captivity, many of which are at high risk of extinction in the wild, including giant pandas.

“Animals, including humans, have developed rhythms to synchronize their internal environment with the external environment,” said study lead author Kristine Gandia, a doctoral candidate at the University of Stirling in Scotland, in a press release .

“When internal clocks are out of sync with external signals such as light and temperature, animals experience adverse effects. In humans, this can range from jet lag to metabolic problems and seasonal affective disorder,” Gandia said.

Gandia and a team of observers tried to understand how the “jet lag” of living in latitudes where animals did not evolve might affect them.

“This is definitely a concept that could apply to all animals in captivity,” Gandia told CNN.

Giant pandas were chosen as the focus of the study in part because they live highly seasonal lives. Migrations occur in spring because pandas eat a certain species of bamboo and search for new shoots. Spring is also the mating season.

Their treatment in captivity also lent itself well to the study, Gandia added.

“Pandas are great animals to focus on,” he said. “They are very popular in zoos and there are many equipped with ‘panda cams’ (webcams from the animal enclosures), so we can see how their behavior changes at different latitudes.”

These cameras allowed scientists to monitor the pandas’ behavior over a 24-hour period. Meanwhile, other factors, such as regular visits from zookeepers, could also influence the animals’ circadian clock.

Gandia explained to CNN that the latitude range of giant pandas is between 26 and 42 degrees north. Corresponding latitudes between 26 and 42 degrees south could also be considered, as they reflect temperature and lighting conditions.

A team of 13 observers, led by Gandia, monitored 11 giant pandas in six different zoos, all born in captivity. The zoos were not identified but were roughly divided between the animals’ natural latitudes and those outside that range. The corresponding ones were located at latitudes equivalent to their natural habitat in China, but could have been located in other countries.

The observers studied the pandas every month for a year, taking regular readings to see how their behavior changed.

In an email to CNN, Gandia explained: “We recorded essentially the entire repertoire of giant panda behavior, trying to account for behaviors that are positive, neutral and negative indicators of well-being. Thus, this would include behaviors such as playing, grooming, and sex-related behaviors as positive behaviors, and drinking and urinating/defecating as neutral maintenance behaviors, and several abnormal/stereotypical behaviors as negative behaviors, of which pacing is the most common.

Daylight and temperature have been found to be important cues for pandas.

Gandia explained the comparison to jet lag, telling CNN: “’Jet lag’ does not refer to the acute inability to sleep at the right times resulting from rapid movement between different time zones, but rather to the potential lack of ability to adapt fully to environmental conditions. conditions and signals at latitudes where pandas did not evolve to live. Therefore, this could result in the desynchronization of some internal clocks or behaviors with the environment or with each other.”

The captive animals showed three peaks of activity during a 24-hour period, one of which was during the night, just as they would in their natural habitat. Sexual behavior has only been recorded during the day in adult pandas, which may be an easier time for them to find mates in the wild.

Those living in captivity outside their home latitude were found to be less active, which may be because daylight and temperature signals differed from those in their natural environment.

“When giant pandas live at higher latitudes, meaning they experience more extreme seasons than they evolved with, this changes their general activity levels and abnormal behavior,” Gandia said.

For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *