Climb Every Tree!

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For those of you who have actually seen the pandas in person when they first start to climb, you know how they can take some trees without difficulty, and some are a little more challenging. Each cub born at the San Diego Zoo has gone through ups and downs when it comes to climbing trees, literally. A cub’s first teacher is, of course, Mom, and here we have Bai Yun. There is a reason her name translates to “white cloud”: she is an excellent climber, and as a young cub she would spend most of her time up the trees.

When cubs leave the den they begin climbing trees, and they spend a majority of their day up in a tree. Females leave the cubs in the top of the trees while they forage for bamboo. Staying up at the top of a tree on the thinner branches allows a cub some safety from large cats that may take advantage of Mom being away from her cub. Staying up above most of the branches keeps the cub up and hopefully out of the ranges of others.

Those thin branches can really only hold the cub, and if anything else gets on the branch they may go tumbling down. Young cubs can fall without getting hurt. The growing cubs still have a good layer of fat, and about 3 inches (8 centimeters) of fur, allowing the cub to safely land.

As our panda youngsters get older, they turn the trees into their own playground, jungle gym, and demolition zone. Su Lin is very good at tearing down the branches of the elm tree in her exhibit and loves to play as high as she can in the trees. Zhen Zhen is currently at the stage where pretty much all she wants to do in the trees is sleep. Not too exciting right now, but as she gets older she will go through the same stage that her sister is in right now, and I’m sure we will see that fun, exciting behavior.

The other day, I was asked when was the last time Bai Yun climbed a tree, and why doesn’t she climb that much? For our regulars, I’m sure that’s an easy question for you to answer, but it did make me think about the last time I saw her climb. The elm trees in the front exhibits aren’t exactly the big sturdy trees that hold a 220-pound (100-kilogram) bear like Bai Yun, but in the “classroom,” our exhibit behind the scenes, she does have a bigger tree. The last time I saw her climb, she was pregnant with our current cub, Yun Zi; she had climbed halfway up the tree, found a comfortable spot where she hung her head on a branch, and went to sleep. The only times I’ve ever really seen her climb high up into the tree have been when she’s been upset by a loud sound.

The next time you visit the San Diego Zoo, check out the trees in the enclosures and try to see where the bears have been.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch video (below) of Zhen Zhen climbing a tree on November 17, 2009. Provided by panda fan Bobbie Wood.