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How to Flirt in Panda: Bears' Squeaks Decoded

panda preserve
A giant panda at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Conservation Center in Sichuan Province.
(Image: © Binbin Li)

Neeeeeh. Wow wow. Gee gee.

Maybe that sounds like nonsense to the average person, but to panda bears, those sounds may translate roughly to "let's get busy," "stop bothering me" or "more, please" respectively, according to a new study of panda bear sounds.

The strange squeaks, grunts and hiccups made by the black-and-white furballs are actually part of a panda language, the Xinhua news agency recently reported.

The new results come from a five-year study of pandas living at the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda.

"Trust me — our researchers were so confused when we began the project. They wondered if they were studying a panda, a bird, a dog or a sheep," study leader Zhang Hemin, told the BBC. However, as the researchers studied the vocalizations more intensely, they began to identify different sounds made when the bamboo-munching beasts were feeling frisky, hungry or anxious, the researchers said. [In Photos: Panda Baby Grows Up]

Panda talk

The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But if they can be verified, the decoding effort could aid in conserving wild pandas by shedding light on some of the animals' most mysterious behaviors, the researchers said. The scientists are even working on a panda translation system that could recognize the voices of individual pandas, the BBC reported.

Of course, even if researchers do succeed in translating panda speak, no one should expect Shakespeare; the researchers say they have identified just 13 different vocalizations. (As a comparison, the prodigy parrot Alex had a 100-word vocabulary and grasped the concept of zero, while Koko the gorilla has a 1,000-word vocabulary in sign language.)

Still, it's clear that panda vocalizations do have meaning. Many of those sounds feature prominently in the animals' mating cycle, said Laurie Thompson, the panda biologist at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which houses four pandas. (Thompson, who was not involved with the new research, would not comment on the study, because there is no peer-reviewed data to look at, and because the Smithsonian's National Zoo has a policy of not commenting on the work of other zoos.)

Come hither

So just what do pandas sound like?

One of the most distinctive sounds they make is a bleat, which sounds like a sheep saying "neeeeh." The Smithsonian's adult male panda, Tian Tian, will bleat this as the panda equivalent of "hey, girl!" — a contact call to his next-door neighbor, the adult female panda Mei Xiang.

"The closer it gets to estrus, it gets a little bit more high-pitched and a little bit more frantic," Thompson said.

But Tian Tian will also bleat when he's hungry or wants something from his caregivers, Thompson said.

Mei Xiang, for her part, will bleat when she's calling her cubs or when she's in estrus, or in heat.

The female panda also barks and makes moaning sounds that morph from low, mean and aggressive when she's far from ovulating (outside of the mating season) to high-pitched and squeaky as she approaches her fertile period. Once she's in estrus, she breaks out the piece de resistance: the bleat, Thompson said.

When both pandas bleat, "then you'll know that they're both interested," Thompson said.

Be quiet!

Pandas have other sounds in their repertoire, such as the honk.

"It's rhythmic, sort of like the hiccups," and sounds a bit like "unh, unh," Thompson said.

The honk is a sign that the pandas are stressed, typically by some strange or unfamiliar noise.

Baby pandas at the zoo, such as Mei Xiang's adorable panda cub Bei Bei, make cute squealing sounds, but typically don't bleat, she said.

"They can do the honk when they get a little bit older, probably a couple months old or right around where Bei Bei is right now. He's old enough to be able to honk if something upsets him," Thompson said. "It's the only vocalization he makes that's not kind of cublike."

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