On Campus: The Weigh-In

Faculty experts shed light on news that makes us go, “wha?”

THE NEWS:

A giant panda made headlines this summer when it was revealed she may have faked pregnancy to trick her Chinese caretakers into giving her better treatment. Is this possible?

Illustration: Kevin Rechin

THE EXPERT:

Mark B. Kristal, professor of psychology and animal behaviorist

Mark B. Kristal, professor of psychology and animal behaviorist

The short answer is no, a panda can’t do this deliberately. Pseudopregnancy is a condition caused by specific neuro-hormonal stimuli that are not under voluntary control. The system can be deceived into reacting as if the panda was pregnant, but this deception can’t be done voluntarily. If specific behaviors are involved, the picture changes. For instance, if belly rubbing were hypothetically a sign of pregnancy in a panda, then the panda could learn to belly-rub in order to get rewards. But, although certain brain circuits can be trained by classical conditioning, the circuitry involved in pregnancy and pseudopregnancy cannot be.