Panda Thermal Images

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What can Bai Yun tell us?

Along with blooming flowers and baby birds, spring in San Diego brings the question, “Is Bai Yun pregnant?” Following three successful breeding sessions with Gao Gao in mid-April, giant panda researchers and animal care staff are looking forward to welcoming a new cub in the next few months. But, Bai Yun keeps her secrets very well, and we don’t know yet if she is carrying her sixth offspring. We may get an early glimpse today when we perform the first of a series of thermal images of Bai Yun’s abdomen.

As the name implies, thermal imaging is a way to see areas of increased heat within the body cavity. A thermal camera looks like the old- fashioned, clunky video camera your parents had when you were a kid. But instead of recording moving pictures of you as a tree in the school play, this camera captures still pictures of Bai Yun’s belly. The thermal images are color maps of the organs and activities in the abdomen, with red indicating a higher temperature than yellow, green, or blue (blue is the coolest).

We will concentrate on Bai Yun’s uterus during the imaging sessions. When an embryo gets ready to attach to the uterus, there is increased blood supply to that area, making the temperature in that spot rise several degrees. It is this heat “signature” that indicates the presence and approximate location of an implantation site. It may be too early to see the activity of an embryo or fetus, but we will get a baseline picture of Bai Yun’s uterus to use for comparison over the next several weeks.

Barbara Durrant is the director of reproductive physiology and Henshaw Chair at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post,  Panda Pregnancies 101.