Zoo sex lessons feature pandas – the creatures least likely to mate in the whole animal kingdom

Pandas are being used to teach children about the birds and the bees
Pandas are being used to teach children about the birds and the bees
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THE pitter patter of tiny panda paws is a sound for which zoo bosses will have to wait at least another year.

But despite Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s reluctance to mate, Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas are being used to help teach city pupils about the birds and the bees.

Primary six pupils at Sciennes Primary School recently visited the zoo to learn about reproduction in the likes of pandas, penguins, monkeys, rhinos and gibbons.

They were then shown a short video of an elephant giving birth, which left some pupils feeling a little queasy.

The children, who are aged ten or 11, have also each been asked to bring a bag of flour to school on Monday, which they will draw a face on and treat as a baby for a full week, taking it with them wherever they go or arranging a “babysitter” should they wish to leave the house without their charge.

Anja Schiefler, whose ten-year-old daughter Ivy took part in the trip to the zoo with her fellow Sciennes classmates earlier this month, said she thought the visits were a good idea but found it “funny” that the pandas were being used 
as part of the sex education 
lessons for pupils.

“Pandas only have sex once a year,” said the mother-of-two, a freelance photographer.

“They’re trying to have a baby and obviously it didn’t work this time so they have to wait now.”

Breeding giant pandas is notoriously difficult, with the females only able to conceive for 36 hours every year.

Pandas in captivity often fail to mate within that time. And although there have been successful captive breeding programmes with giant pandas, most of them have relied on artificial insemination.

Ms Schiefler, 47, who was born in Germany and now lives in the Mayfield, added: “The pupils also went to see the monkeys and shouted out the names for their genitalia.

“It’s to do with learning the right vocabulary and using it as well.

“I think the trip to the zoo is a good idea to move a bit away from the theory and for the pupils to see that this is life –this is nature.

“The film about the elephant giving birth was quite full-on and there was one little boy who felt sick and was about to faint. Quite a few of the pupils felt a bit sick and didn’t want to watch it.”

Edinburgh Zoo said the panda part of the reproduction talk focused on delayed implantation, which is when the embryo does not implant during the immediate period following fertilisation and remains in a state of suspended growth.

Education officer primary specialist at the zoo, Joanna Dick, said the Cycle of Life educational programme was created with the city council and has existed in its current format since 2007, but has been operating at the zoo for more than 15 years.

She said: “Open to primary six and seven children all over the UK, it’s our most popular lesson on offer by far. We run it all year round and saw almost 2500 children take part last year.

“The lesson lasts nearly two hours and it is a no-nonsense, grown-up, scientific approach to sexual education.

“Children spend most of the lesson out in the park meeting our animals, learning the correct terminology for sexual body parts and learning about the process of reproduction – including fertilisation, embryos and development in the womb – as well as how babies are cared for.

“We mainly focus on 
mammals in the animal kingdom, but also touch on how humans are both similar and different when it comes to their bodies and reproduction.”

A council spokeswoman said: “Under the Curriculum for Excellence, we encourage all schools to create an environment that is creative and engaging for pupils.

“The Cycle of Life programme, which is run by the zoo, does exactly this in a fun and informative way.

“We are pleased to see our schools making use of the city’s many excellent resources, like the zoo, to educate pupils about such important issues.”

All things weird and wonderful

Bed bugs

One of the more squeamish insect world courting rituals... The male engages in a process called “traumatic insemination” – where he stabs a hole in the female’s abdomen – before inseminating her.

Red-sided garter snakes

As many as 25,000 snakes slither into a large den, where some females have as many as 100 males attempting to mate with them at a time. The sex-mad snakes form 2ft “nesting balls”, which has the consequence of crushing some of the females to death. However, the males don’t take this as a sign to stop – and then continue to mate with the corpses.


The male follows his selected partner around, carefully sniffing every spot in which she urinates.

After the female has reared up belly-to-belly with her mate, he then urinates all over her.

If she accepts, they go on to mate until the male is worn out. If she refuses, the male is forced to try again, with the possibility of the urine-based courtship lasting for up to six months.


Both male and female ducks have unusual genitalia – males have corkscrew-shaped penises while females have labyrinthine vaginal tracts with a number of ‘dead ends’ that do not lead to the uterus.

The females have evolved the ability to close off their real reproductive tract to the sperm of unwanted partners.


There are several spider species where the female is known to devour the male after sex.

In black widows, this appears to be more about nutritional requirements than a weird sexual habit.

A study published in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2011 showed that male black widow spiders had a trick to avoid being eaten.

It is thought the males are able to sniff out a well-fed female by walking on her web and they use this technique to avoid the hungry females, which are much more likely to eat them.