Edinburgh Zoo’s most famous residents look to be on the road to romance after enjoying regular rendezvous inside their very own “love tunnel”.
Keepers are hopeful giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guan are gearing up to mate for the first time after the pair were spotted flirting at their meeting point.
The sex-shy couple failed to hit it off during the 36-hour annual mating season last year, but with both now appearing to be in the mood, the early signs are good for the Chinese visitors.
A zoo spokeswoman said Yang Guang had been doing “handstands” to spread his scent in a bid to show his virility, while Tian Tian was bleating to attract attention.
She said: “It’s really exciting to watch them interact at the moment.
“Yang Guang went to the love tunnel and has gone up and looked for her. He stood up on his hind paws and was looking for her with his tummy up against it.
“Then she came over and pressed her nose up against it. They were there for about a minute looking at each other.
“There is a lot more communication going on between them, which is part of their behavioural changes in the build up to mating time. It’s great to see them starting, we weren’t seeing them at this point last year, it was later.”
The giant pandas, who are both nine years old, were introduced to each other on five separate occasions last year after Tian Tian came into season on April 2.
Zoo experts said it was impossible to predict exactly when the mating season would begin, but said it was likely to be next month.
Tian Tian’s hormones are being tested every day, and this year vets will also test Yang Guang to help them better understand male panda behaviour.
Even if they do mate, confirming Tian Tian is pregnant will not be a straightforward affair, with pandas often liable to pseudo-pregnancies.
Experts are not certain how long panda gestation periods are, as female pandas practise delayed implantation – their pregnancies can last anything from 85 to 100 days.
Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas and strategic innovations for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said it was too early to suggest what might happen this year. He said: “Although both giant pandas are showing these changes in their behaviour, it is way too early to give any accurate prediction on timings. However, early indicators do suggest the breeding season will probably fall in March this year.
“In reality, we could be as little as four weeks away, although equally the big day could still be as far off as eight weeks. We are now definitely on the flight path.”
Tian Tian and Yang Guang are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years. They have both bred before, although not with each other. They arrived in Edinburgh from China in December 2011.