Gao Gao Grandbabies?

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We have had confirmation from our friends in China that Mei Sheng, our beloved boy born to Bai Yun and Gao Gao in 2003, has indeed copulated with a female in Bi Feng Xia (BFX). Way to go, Mei Sheng!

In some ways we are all a bit surprised to hear this, since he is so young. Even our Chinese colleagues expressed their surprise at his success. It is definitely atypical for a male to achieve a copulation with his first-ever breeding encounter, especially when he is only five years old. But there are many reasons why Mei Sheng might have had the odds stacked in his favor.

First, some credit lies in the management tactics of our Chinese friends. It is their habit to give young animals a shot at gaining experience in breeding encounters in advance of their peak reproductive years. Apparently, they had little expectation that Mei Sheng would actually breed this year. However, he showed interest in a particular female, so they gave him a shot. Staff at BFX noted that the process took a long time, and were nearly ready to separate the two animals when copulation finally occurred.

Some credit should also be given to the chosen female. Ying Ying is a 17-year-old wild-caught female, mother to many litters of cubs, and a seasoned veteran of the mating game. She had been bred the previous day to another male, and staff is fairly certain of the success of that pairing, so there was no need to attempt further matings with Ying. She was a perfect candidate to play Mrs. Robinson to Mei Sheng. Apparently she and our boy hit it off beautifully. Her experience and patience no doubt played a role in our boy’s success. Even Gao Gao didn’t copulate in his first several breeding encounters, though his pairings were with a very young, inexperienced female, and that may have been all the difference.

Perhaps some of the credit lies with Bai Yun. Mei Sheng is unlike many of his peers at BFX, because he had the benefit of maternal guidance for 18 months of his life. Research has shown that in many animal species, animals that are reared by their mothers are more successful at reproduction than animals that are hand-raised. Bai Yun’s species-specific guidance may have given Mei Sheng an advantage compared to his nursery-reared counterparts, improving his chances of a breeding success.

Finally, a little credit might fall on the shoulders of his daddy, Gao Gao. We all know what a triumph Gao has been with natural mating, and there may be some genetic component that predisposes our young Mei Sheng to be a real breeding sensation. If this is true, then watch out! In the next few years we can expect a great number of Gao Gao grandbabies to populate the breeding centers of China!

In the short term, though, it is likely that Mei Sheng’s mating will not result in offspring. If the Chinese estimation is correct, it is likely Ying Ying will give birth to young from the other male she bred with this year. However, since it is known that bears, like some other carnivores, can give birth to litters with multiple sires, there remains a remote chance that Mei Sheng will be a daddy this year. In any case, he is primed to reprise his grandfather Pan Pan’s role of “breeder extraordinaire” in the future.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.