Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
Suzanne Hall is a Senior Research Technician doing behavioral research at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Although she splits her time between the Zoo and Safari Park locations, one of her projects involves the very special giant panda. Pandas have been difficult subject for biologists to study because not much has been known about their activity in the wild and they do not naturally reproduce well in zoos. With the research of Ms. Hall and other scientists at institutes around the world, we hope to continue improving the population and quality of life for these iconic bears.
The interns met with Ms. Hall at the Giant Panda Research Center. She gave us an introduction to her work: observing the behavior of animals in order to learn more about their physical, mental, and emotional needs – both in zoos and in the wild.
Ms. Hall uses an “ethogram” to precisely record panda activity over a given interval of time. Ethograms are lists of behaviors commonly seen among an animal species, such as eating, climbing, urinating, and playing. There are so many distinguishable activities, in fact, that the real ethogram for pandas was at one point more than 30 pages long! Each behavior is given a code so that notes can be taken very quickly, without having to write out the phrase “feed on provisioned food” every time the behavior is seen.
Interns were given a data sheet to record our observations while we were visiting the panda exhibit, to simulate the way researchers take actual data. Under “all occurences” we wrote the code for any behavior performed by our subject animal for more than five seconds. After each minute of observation, we would move to the next row. In the “pt. sam.” column we wrote down the activity the animal was doing at the exact moment our 60 second timer went off, known as a point sample.
The San Diego Zoo currently has four pandas: Bai Yun and her sons Yun Zi and Xiao Liwu, as well as their father Gao Gao. On the day we visited, Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu were the only two that we observed during our behavioral study with Ms. Hall, but our ethogram notes were only taken in regards to Bai Yun.
Pandas’ main food source is bamboo and get offered up to 40 pounds of it a day! Funnily enough, pandas are picky about their bamboo: it can’t be too dry or too old, etc. Behaviorists like Ms. Hall have noticed that Bai Yun will often inspect each piece of bamboo before she eats it, discarding some and consuming others.
The San Diego Zoo has had a number of pandas come and go from their facility. One wall contained pictures of the pandas the Zoo has had: Bai Yun, Shi Shi, Gao Gao, Hua Mei, Su Lin, Yun Zi, Mei Sheng, and Zhen Zhen. Xiao Liwu has yet to get a picture on this family-photo wall.
Young pandas are not strong enough to eat tough foods like bamboo, and spend about the first year of life drinking only their mother’s milk. Towards the end of that year, the cub will begin trying to eat small stalks of bamboo. In fact, little Xiao Liwu has only recently begun eating bamboo. His mother, on the other hand, dedicates approximately twelve hours per day to eating.
Did you know that we don’t actually own any of these adorable animals? It’s true: this favorite Zoo attraction is actually a nationally protected species from China, and we care for them on loan from their home country. It takes an international collaboration to preserve this fragile species.
Laura, Photo Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2013