Adolescent female giant pandas were recently seen curiously wandering farther from home during mating season than expected. This, researchers say, marks the first time such behavior has been observed in a female of any bear species. 

Generally speaking, it is the young boys approaching adulthood that travel outside of their family group to mate, while girls stay closer to home and wait for their male caller. But it appears giant pandas have broken the status quo. 

The recent study from Michigan State University aims to learn more about how the elusive bears behave in their natural, remote environments of southwestern China. In turn, their findings could help improve conservation efforts for the endangered animals. 

"So much is still unknown about how pandas use their habitat," said Jianguo Liu, one of the study researchers and Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability director. "Pandas are a part of coupled human and natural systems where humans share their habitat. Anything we can learn about how they live and what they need can ultimately help inform good conservation policies."

Five giant pandas fitted with GPS collars were tracked for the recent study. This, paired with data from other similar studies, revealed females rival males in distances moved from home during mating season - a behavior previously overlooked.

Furthermore, researchers found evidence suggesting that adolescent females disperse further than males. However, females tend to return to their home range to give birth and raise their cubs. Traveling far can be a risky behavior for females, as there is at least one documented case of a female being emancipated and wounded after venturing too far from her family. 

"The tendency for female natal dispersal is an interesting behavioral adaptation that is uncommon in mammals, and not found in any other bear species," said Thomas Connor, one of the study researchers and a MSU Ph.D. student. 

The recent study continues an effort started by co-author Vanessa Hull. The findings have important implications as climate change and human development have taken a great toll on how and where the animals live.

The giant pandas fitted with GPS collars live in two mountain ranges: the Qionglai range, where the famous Wolong Nature Reserve is located, and the Qinling Mountains to the north. 

Previously, researchers were unsure whether the brownish pandas of the Qinling Mountains had smaller or larger home ranges than those in Wolong, which look slightly different. The recent study, however, confirms there is no difference at all. It is now believed that, despite a larger seasonal migration in the Qinling Mountains, pandas in both areas use a similar amount of territory.

"It is fascinating that in a species as well known as the giant panda, there are still so many uncertainties and unanswered questions," Connor added. "In addition to mysteries surrounding their behavior and ecology, much remains unknown concerning the effect of human disturbance on panda individuals and populations. In a time of rapid expansion, but also considerable conservation effort in China, a better understanding of this panda-human interaction is crucial to make these efforts effective in the future."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Integrative Zoology.