WASHINGTON — Officials called off the live broadcast of a giant panda giving birth because, as it turns out, she wasn’t actually pregnant.
Ai Hin, a 6-year-old giant panda living at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in China, had exhibited signs of pregnancy for two months. But the center realized she actually had a “phantom pregnancy,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
The life of a pregnant giant panda living in captivity sounds pretty sweet, relatively speaking. She gets her own suite loaded with amenities such as air-conditioning, around-the-clock care and a serious supply of buns, fruit and bamboo. According to Xinhua, pandas with phantom pregnancies sometimes notice the nicer set-up that comes with initial signs of pregnancy and carry on with the charade.
“So some clever pandas have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life,” panda expert Wu Kongju told Xinhua.
Could it be that the beloved Ai Hin is nothing but a liar who will stop at nothing in pursuit of that luxurious panda life?
Well, for starters, “phantom pregnancies” – or “pseudo pregnancies” – are quite common among giant pandas (they occur in other species, too). Pseudo-pregnant pandas exhibits signs of pregnancy, including a decreased appetite and activity level, along with some physical changes.
They also experience an increase in the same hormones that are associated with panda pregnancies, a surge that drives behavioral changes. So you can’t really use those hormones as a biomarker for pregnancy, Iain Valentine, director of the Edinburgh Zoo’s giant panda program, told the BBC last year. “They have a complicated biology.”
As such, figuring out whether a panda is pregnant is no easy task. And a giant panda fetus is actually quite small, so it’s difficult to find it with an ultrasound scan.
Some fake-pregnant pandas may have been pregnant but miscarried before giving birth, Suzanne Hall, a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, wrote in 2011.
But, she wrote, false pregnancies have been observed in giant pandas who didn’t have a chance to breed. So why would a giant panda pass herself off as pregnant? Could it be the extra bamboo?
We aren’t entirely certain, but here is one theory: because it doesn’t cost them much to do so. 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. Cubs only grow for about 50 days, which doesn’t require a long-term commitment. And 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.”
Perhaps Ai Hin is not in need of human forgiveness. It could have been the bamboo, the buns and the A/C. Or maybe she was getting ready to have a baby – just in case.