An investigation into the factors that affect play fighting behavior in giant pandas

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Wilson, Megan L.
Maple, Terry L.
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The prevalence of play in the animal kingdom makes it a well-studied phenomenon, yet little is known about play fighting behavior in bears. I investigated the effects of sex, partner (dam or cub), and early rearing conditions on play fighting behavior in giant panda cubs by observing video tapes that were recorded at two facilities in China over a three-year period. Two of the three factors, sex and partner, had significant effects on the play fighting behavior of giant panda cubs. I found sex differences in play fighting, with males exhibiting significantly higher rates of biting behavior than females during play bouts with other cubs. This lends support to the motor training hypothesis and suggests that there is a relationship between adult roles and earlier play fighting behavior. Partner had a significant effect on play fighting, in that cubs exhibited significantly higher rates of Bite, Break Away, Paw Swat, and Re-engage behaviors during play bouts with cubs. These differences suggest that cubs and dams might provide different opportunities as partners during play fighting bouts. Because some behaviors occurred at higher rates with dams, it is possible that dams engage in self-handicapping behavior during play fighting bouts with cubs. Early rearing conditions did not have significant effects on behaviors when they were examined by category or by individual behaviors. Similar results were found when cubs that had access to adult females after six months of age were excluded from the analyses. These results suggest that early rearing conditions have little effect on the play fighting behavior of captive giant panda cubs. Certain aspects of giant panda behavioral ecology, however, might contribute to stability in play signals, regardless of early rearing conditions. Future studies of play fighting behavior in bears should further examine these and other factors, and that data from these studies need to be interpreted in light of the relationship of bears to other carnivores.
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