Neeeeeh. Wow wow. Gee gee.
Maybe that sounds like nonsense to you, but to a giant panda, those sounds may translate roughly to “let’s get busy,” “stop bothering me” and “more, please,” according to a new study.
The strange squeaks, grunts and hiccups made by the black-and-white fur balls are part of a panda language, China’s Xinhua news agency recently reported. The findings come from a five-year study of pandas living at the China Conservation & Research Center 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 animals were feeling frisky, hungry or anxious.
The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But if they can be verified, the decoding effort may shed 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.
The researchers say they have identified just 13 different vocalizations. (By comparison, Alex, an African gray parrot who died in 2007, had a 100-word vocabulary and grasped the concept of zero, while Koko, a gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, 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, who was not involved with the new research.
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 heat.
The female panda also barks and makes moaning sounds that morph from low, mean and aggressive when she’s far from ovulating (outside the mating season) to high-pitched and squeaky as she approaches her fertile period. Once she’s in estrus, she breaks out the bleat, Thompson said.
When both pandas bleat, “then you’ll know that they’re both interested,” she said.
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 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.”