Clearly, Very Ready

Yun Zi: From cub to subadult

The weaning process continues at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station. Things have gone very well for both bears thus far. Mother panda Bai Yun, in particular, is showing us that the time was most certainly right to begin separations. She has been more than adamant in rejecting most of Yun Zi’s attempts to nurse or play. That said, one nursing bout was observed early in the morning on Thursday, just before separation.

For his part, Yun Zi seems largely content during periods of separation. Keepers have noted that, if anything, his behavior appears a little more subdued than usual. Perhaps this is because he realizes that, for the first time, he is without his mother’s protection during the day. This might stimulate a desire to lay low, to avoid drawing attention to himself. This could be a response to the loss of the mother-cub bond; that loss is known to be more strongly felt by offspring than by mothers during and after the weaning process. Or perhaps this is a means of conserving energy on his part.

Last night, time-lapse video of panda Yun Zi was recorded to monitor his transition to the third step of the weaning process, an overnight separation lasting nearly 18 hours. Our youngster had a very good night, considering it was his first overnight separation. When the keepers said good-night to him, he was fast asleep atop the den in his exhibit, a resting place also favored by his father, Gao Gao, and older sister Su Lin. He remained at rest until after 3 a.m.

Interestingly, he got up briefly at that point to grab some bamboo and climb back atop the den to feed. He got hungry and didn’t look for Mom. Instead, he looked for bamboo, just like a sub-adult might do.

After feeding he went back to rest. Just before 5 a.m. he got up and began a bit of restless wandering in his exhibit. He did check the door between his exhibit and Bai Yun’s a few times. He climbed high in his structure and looked around. He went into his bedroom and waited at the door. And he seemed to notice when the keepers entered the facility at about 6 a.m.

His morning activity pattern, with the exception of the gate checks, looks very much like that of any other panda at the facility. It’s common for the bears to anticipate the arrival of the staff, knowing their breakfast will soon be served. Indeed, shortly after their arrival the keepers pulled both mother and offspring into their bedrooms to have their meals separately. This ensured that Yun Zi was getting a full belly without Bai Yun stealing his biscuits. Then the bears were reunited.

The first thing both bears did was move past one another to check and see if the other had left any breakfast behind.

Once given access to each other and the exhibits, the pair engaged in a rowdy play session lasting several minutes. No nursing attempts were seen. And then the bears went their separate ways, Yun Zi to his side for a nap, and Bai Yun to hers for some bamboo.

We have but a few days left of mother-son association, but we are very pleased with how well the two are doing with this process. I am struck by how completely Yun Zi has adopted the new exhibit space as his own. To my recollection none of our cubs has ever felt so totally at home there. Perhaps this is the reason for the very mild response we have seen in him thus far. Is his love of Gao Gao’s former abode the result of the exhibit renovations done a few months ago? It’s hard to say.

In any case, keep rooting for our boy as he moves from “cub” to “sub-adult.” He’s clearly very ready for it!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Moving Right Along.

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