Behavioural geneticist Danielle Reed recently designed a study that revealed that pandas love sweets. Why is this surprising, you may ask?
Pandas evolved from carnivorous ancestors; that is, many of their relatives exclusively ate meat. Today, many carnivores cannot taste sweet things; cats, for example (from tigers to housecats) have lost the gene responsible for tasting sweet flavors. So, it seemed possible that pandas, despite their plant-eating lifestyle, retained the carnivore characteristic of no sweet-tasting.
In this study, pandas regularly chose a sugar water solution over plain water, confirming that pandas do, indeed, taste and enjoy sweet things. Zookeepers, of course, were unsurprised; they've been giving pandas apples, sweet potato, and the like for years.
I've often thought that biologists could benefit from talking to zookeepers, local peoples, and others with regular contact with animals and the environment (I'm not the only one who thinks this; many scientists collaborate with zookeepers and amateur naturalists all over the world). Often, insights about animal behaviour and cognition arise from regular contact, rather than only from controlled scientific studies. For example, in 1946, Edmund Jaeger stunned the scientific community with his discovery of a hibernating Common Poorwill. The idea of a hibernating bird was completely new in academic circles! Of course, members of the Hopi tribe, whose age-old name for the Common Poorwill is “holchko,” or “the sleeping one,” were somewhat less stunned by Jaeger’s discovery.
“Giant pandas love sweets,” said behavioural geneticist author Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, who led the study published in the journal PLOS ONE. “We are a bit surprised. However, given the anecdotal evidence that they like apple, sweet potato and so on in captivity, we are not completely surprised,” added Monell molecular biologist Peihua Jiang, another of the researchers.