If you're a giant panda, this sound means romance. "I wouldn't call it a romantic serenade" Megan Owen, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. "There's nothing soft or demure about it." And yet: that sound, called a bleat, "that's B-L-E-A-T, just like a goat" signals that a panda couple has hit it off, and copulation is nigh.
Owen and her colleagues analyzed more than 2,500 panda sounds recorded during breeding introductions, and analyzed the audio’s acoustic qualities. Their study, in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is a sort of how-to guide for panda breeders, cataloguing the various vocal characteristics of a blind date: an uninterested roar or bark; a more ambiguous chirp; or an amorous bleat.
Decoding the sounds could be important not just for boosting panda numbers, Owen says, but for avoiding very bad dates. "These are bears and they have sharp teeth and claws and they can do a lot of damage to one another if they don't want to be around each other."
And these fine-tuned communication skills also make the case that the social lives of pandas are anything but black and white.