Diane Etkins told the Associated Press that the pandas "had been really lazy and just eaten a little bit of bamboo, and all of a sudden they were parading around their pen.
"Looking back they must have sensed something was wrong."
(Read: "Can Animals Sense Earthquakes?" [November 11, 2003].)
Etkins and 30 other Britons were evacuated to the provincial capital of Chengdu after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated the remote mountainous region, toppling towns and killing more than 19,000 people.
Twelve Americans, part of a tour of China sponsored by the conservation group WWF, were also visiting the breeding center when the earthquake hit. All of the tourists survived the quake, WWF confirmed to National Geographic News on Wednesday.
"It certainly was a surreal experience going through a 7.9 … earthquake surrounded by 25 pandas all sort of reacting to that as well," one of the Americans, Robert Liptak, told the Associated Press.
The 86 captive adult pandas were unharmed by the disaster, and an unknown number of cubs were moved to a safer location in Shawan, a main town in Wolong.
Accounts abound of both domesticated and wild animals behaving oddly before major natural disasters.
In 2005, elephants screamed and ran for cover and zoo animals rushed into their shelters before a tsunami struck Sri Lanka and India.
The giant waves killed more 150,000 people in a dozen countries, yet few animals were reported dead—suggesting that the animals reacted early to the impending disaster, experts said. Animals have extraordinary sensory perceptions that exceed those of humans, said Diana Reiss, a professor at Hunter College in New York who studies animal cognition.
For instance, many animals can see and hear beyond human capabilities. Snakes can feel seismic waves from their burrowing prey. And some scientists have found that elephants may even be able to "hear" through their feet, Reiss said.
Many of these highly developed senses developed as survival tools in the wild, Reiss said.
"It would be important for animals to use as many cues in the environment as possible to predict an impending disaster," she told National Geographic News.
However, Reiss warned about reading too much into the apparent strange behavior of the Wolong pandas.
"These are interesting observations, but to really determine whether they are responding to something seismic … we would have to know more about what their normal behavior is," she added.
Marc Brody, president of the U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), works on panda conservation.
"I would think that animals certainly have a stronger sense of perception than humans in terms of their natural environment," he said. "When I think of a panda and their four broad feet on the ground, one would think they feel tremors before we do."
Brody, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society, added that animals' general ability to hear at different sonic wavelengths may attribute to their early warning systems. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Sybille Klenzendorf, director of species conservation for WWF, said "it's not an uncommon phenomenon for animals to get nervous when big storms or tsunamis come."
The Chinese earthquake is the "same sort of thing. [Animals feel] changes in the environment—vibrations that we don't feel."
Animals such as pandas are "more in tune with their sixth sense"—an ability humans probably had in the past, Klenzendorf said. "But we've lost that kind of sensitivity," she added.
The famed Wolong National Nature Reserve, which stretches for 772 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) across rugged mountain terrain of central China, includes the largest population of captive giant pandas in the world. (See photos of the Wolong pandas.)
More than 1,590 wild pandas also inhabit the reserve, and their fate is still unknown, China's state-run media agency, Xinhua, reported Thursday.
But USCEF's Brody said that those animals are likely unhurt in their native habitat.
Suzanne Braden, director of U.S.-based Pandas International, told the Associated Press on Monday that the wild pandas were probably fine.
"The wild pandas, they can sense things," she said.
"I'm sure they moved to higher terrain. But captive pandas do not have that luxury."