The panda population has been dwindling in recent years, causing scientists at zoos around the world to play matchmaker, pairing up panda couples in the hopes that they’ll produce more offspring. But pandas in these kinds of arranged marriages have been famously reluctant to mate, and scientists have even been forced to artificially inseminate them. The solution? According to a recent study, the key to getting these rare animals to breed might be something as simple, and intuitive, as love. 

It’s somewhat surprising that scientists hadn’t previously considered mate preference as a solution to their panda breeding problem. (That being said, it’s also possible that, in the past, there simply haven’t been enough pandas in captivity together to give the animals much choice in the matter.) At any rate, researchers at the Chengdu Panda Base (part of the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda) began to observe that many panda couples paired up by scientists on the basis of genetic compatibility weren’t hitting it off. At the same time, those who seemed to “love” each other (who expressed typical panda signals of infatuation, or paid each other more attention in their enclosures) would mate without much hesitation.

According to National Geographic, the researchers began observing pandas living in adjoining enclosures at the Bifengxia Panda Station in Sichuan. Pandas of different genders could see and smell each other through windows in their enclosures, so scientists observed which ones seemed most interested in each other, then paired them up. National Geographic explains, “When pandas that had been making eyes at each other finally got to be alone, they almost always hit the bull's-eye.”

Based on these observations, it seems like scientists’ days of playing panda matchmaker may be coming to a close. Researcher Meghan Martin-Wintle explains that it’s still unclear how pandas choose their mates. “I suspect it’s really complicated,” she told National Geographic. “Just like in humans.”

[h/t: National Geographic]