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Giant Pandas Living In Captivity Could Be Experiencing “Jet Lag”

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Giant pandas raised in captivity possibly suffer from “jet lag”, if their circadian clock does not match their environment, according to scientists.

A new study, published on Monday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, stated that this could take a serious toll on the health and behavior of the endangered species.

Pandas, like all animals, have a circadian clock, an internal body clock is a system that cycles about every 24 hours, which aligns the body’s sleep-wake cycles to cues from the environment. But this might cause a problem when the cues are exposed in captivity that don’t match the animals’ natural surroundings.

It is important as it affects the well-being of animals living in captivity, many of which are at risk in the wild, including giant pandas.

Lead study author Kristine Gandia, a Ph.D. student at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release, “Animals, including humans, have evolved rhythms to synchronize their internal environment with the external environment. When internal clocks are not synchronized with external cues like light and temperature, animals experience adverse effects. In humans, this can range from jet lag to metabolic issues and seasonal affective disorder.”

Gandia and a team of observers have begun finding answers to how the “jet lag” of living in latitudes that animals did not evolve in can affect them. “This is a concept that could apply to all captive animals,” Gandia told CNN, a US based news channel.

The study is focused on giant pandas as they live highly seasonal lives. Spring is not only their mating season but they also feed on a certain species of bamboo and go in search of new shoots.

Their treatment in captivity also lent itself well to the study, Gandia said. She said, “Pandas are very good animals to focus on. They are very popular in zoos and there are a lot that have ‘panda cams’ (webcams from the animals’ enclosures), so we can see how their behavior changes across different latitudes.”

This enabled the scientists to monitor the pandas’ behavior for a 24-hour period, while other factors including frequent visits by zookeepers might also have an impact on the animals’ body clocks.

The latitudinal range for giant pandas is between 26 and 42 degrees north, Gandia explained. Matching latitudes could also be considered between 26 and 42 degrees south, she said, as these mirror the temperature and lighting conditions.

Gandia led a team of 13 observers who closely monitored 11 giant pandas, raised in captivity in six different zoos. It is not clear which zoos but they were roughly split between the animals’ natural latitudes and those outside that range. Those that matched were in the same latitudes as their natural habitat in China but could have been in other countries.

The team observed the pandas every month for a year, taking notes on 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 for welfare. So, this would include behaviors like play, grooming, and sexual-related behaviors as positive behaviors, and drinking and urinating/defecating as neutral maintenance behaviors, and several abnormal/stereotypic behaviors as negative behaviors, with pacing being the most common.”

The observers noticed two essential cues for the pandas: daylight and temperature.

Gandia explained the comparison with jetlag, saying, “The ‘jet lag’ does not refer to the acute inability to sleep at proper times resulting from quickly moving between different time zones, but rather to the potential lack of ability to fully adapt to environmental conditions and cues at latitudes that the pandas have not evolved to live in. Therefore, it could result in certain internal clocks or behaviors being desynchronized with the environment or with each other.”

On one hand, the captive animals performed three kinds of activity across a 24-hour period — one was at night which they would in their natural habitat. Adult pandas exhibited sexual behavior during daytime, as it was easier for them to find mates in the wild.

On the other hand, those living in captivity outside of their home latitude were comparatively inactive. The reason could be the differing daylight and temperature cues as compared to their natural environment.

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

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