About Author: Pamela Crowe

Posts by Pamela Crowe


Wild CSI: Pandas! Part 2

A Wild CSI camper practices doing enzyme immunoassay tests.

Be sure to read Part 1, Wild CSI: Pandas!

On day three, the students were back in the lab learning about behavioral biology and a very important tool used in this discipline, the ethogram. An ethogram is a detailed list of behaviors and activities of a particular species. As a panda behaviorist, I use our panda ethogram on a daily basis. It’s an invaluable tool that can help us understand why an individual animal is engaged in a particular behavior, as well as understanding the general behavioral patterns of a species as a whole.

I created a scaled-down version of our panda ethogram for the students and put together two different video clips for them to observe and decode. Video A contained footage of Bai Yun during the breeding season, and Video B contained footage of her during a non-breeding time of year. The task for the students was to decode Bai Yun’s behavior, using their ethograms, and determine whether or not she was in estrus.


Wild CSI: Pandas!

A few weeks ago, the San Diego Zoo’s Conservation Education team kicked off their annual, week-long Wild CSI Summer Camp for San Diego middle school students. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Panda Lab for Students, I have been working with the conservation education group to help create a fun and exciting giant panda module that will teach the kids about conservation science and about the multidisciplinary approach we use to conduct our panda research here at the San Diego Zoo. Here’s what we did:

On day one of the camp, the group, consisting of 22 students, began with a tour of our state-of-the-art Beckman Center for Conservation Research, which included an overview of the various types of research we are currently conducting here at the Wild Animal Park, the Zoo and in field projects all over the world. Once back in the Conservation Education Laboratory, housed in the Beckman Center, the kids heard a brief lecture about giant pandas. They learned about the pandas’ current conservation status, the threats to their survival, and the research the Zoo is conducting to better understand this elusive species. Next they spent some time learning about operant conditioning, a process of behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive reinforcement.

At the San Diego Zoo, our panda keepers use operant conditioning to train the pandas to display a wide range of natural (no juggling pandas here) behaviors when requested. Some examples include training the panda to open its mouth on command so that the veterinarians can take a look at the teeth, or training the panda to lie down and remain still so veterinarians can conduct an ultrasound. Both of these types of procedures would typically require that the animal be medically sedated; however, through the use of operant conditioning training, it is no longer necessary to subject the animal to the inherent risks of anesthesia. The veterinarians can gather valuable information about the pandas’ dental health or reproductive condition in a safe, stress-free manner. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a clicker and some apple slices (oh, and a very talented keeper!).

The students in our summer camp got to participate in their own operant conditioning activity. They paired up in teams of two and, using a clicker and some candy as the reward, tried their hand at modifying their partner’s behavior. It was a fun, hands-on way for the kids to learn about behavior training and to understand the importance and effective role that it plays in a conservation-breeding program such as ours.

Wild CSI students record sounds from the African elephant herd at the Wild Animal Park.

On day two of our Wild CSI Summer Camp, the students learned about bioacoustics, the cross-disciplinary science that combines biology and acoustics. The Giant Panda Research Unit is currently conducting hearing studies with our giant pandas that utilize bioacoustics analysis to help better understand the pandas’ hearing sensitivities. (Read about it in the blog Su Lin: Hitting the High Notes). This is very important because vocalizations play such a vital role during panda breeding season. They live in a very dense forest habitat, and it’s imperative that they communicate in order to find one another during their short breeding season. The students got to listen to some recordings of giant panda vocalizations collected both here at the Zoo and in China and then had fun quizzing each other on their acoustic capabilities.

To test their own bioacoustics skills, the students headed out to the Wild Animal Park with their recording equipment to collect different animal sounds throughout the Park. As you can imagine, there were all kinds of amazing vocalizations and sounds to record: gibbons and lorikeets, African elephants and shoebill storks. Once back in the Education Lab, they listened and analyzed their recordings to get a feel for what it would be like to be a real bioacoustician!

Check back soon for Wild CSI: Pandas, Part 2

Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Panda Lab for Students

Yun Zi

As a panda researcher, my typical workday is spent collecting and managing behavioral data on the pandas, writing, and doing other research-related tasks. But recently, I had the opportunity to spend the day working with another division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, the Conservation Education Division.

One of the primary goals of the Conservation Education Division (or Con Ed, as we call it) is to connect students and teachers to wildlife by connecting them to conservation science. Con Ed has the state-of-the-art Conservation Education Laboratory, which is located inside the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. The lab contains various scientific tools and equipment that allow the students to have a truly hands-on experience learning about conservation science.

The Con Ed staff meets with more than 600 students per month, covering all ages, from kindergarteners all the way up through college students. The students get to tour the Beckman Center, see all of the various laboratories, and meet our scientists as they’re actively engaged in ongoing research projects. They then spend some time in the education lab conducting experiments and learning about science in a fun, informal setting. The Con Ed staff does an amazing job of providing a conservation science experience to diverse student populations in an attempt to improve conservation literacy and creatively showcase our programs and approaches.

Bai Yun runs a panda teaching lab of her own!

So, as part of an in-house professional development opportunity, I am working with the Con Ed staff to create an education module focusing on giant panda research that could be used in the education lab on a regular basis. We are working together, utilizing my knowledge of giant panda research, to create an education curriculum that will, I hope, get the kids excited about what can be accomplished through conservation science.

Through our research, we’ve learned a great deal about giant pandas over the past 12 years; the challenge is to create a module that will encapsulate all of our techniques and information into something that will both teach and inspire the kids. We’re hoping that we can teach the students about using a multidisciplinary approach to conservation science, as we’ve done with our giant panda research program, as a very effective technique for tackling a complicated research problem. We’re still in the beginning stages, but I’m excited about the opportunity to collaborate with the Con Ed staff and share our message of conservation.

Education outreach is such a crucial part of any conservation program. We can conduct research and learn valuable information about endangered animals and their habitats…but if we don’t then share that information with the public, people aren’t motivated to take action that will protect and nurture our natural world. I hope that by educating and motivating the many students that visit our research institute, we’re having a positive impact on shaping the next generation of conservationists.

The Con Ed staff is headed to the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station for a meeting next week. I’ll keep everyone posted on how things progress.

Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


The Panda Shuffle

It was the day everyone had been waiting for…Bai Yun and Yun Zi’s big move to the main public viewing area. How did the bears respond to the transition? The post A New World highlights the events of the morning and gives a nice account of how the bears reacted to the change. But I thought I’d take a moment to write a bit about how we manage the bears and the decision-making process involved in facilitating a shift like this.

Any time an event or situation arises concerning the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, the Zoo’s Panda Team gathers together around the big conference room table upstairs at the Giant Panda Research Station and discusses the issue at hand. You may recall from previous posts that the Panda Team consists of keepers, researchers, animal care staff, and veterinarians, and everyone’s input is essential. Most of us have worked with these animals (and each other) for many years, and so it typically doesn’t take very long for us to come to an agreement about how best to proceed.

When we’re shifting bears to a new exhibit, our primary concern is always the well-being of the animal. We must first ensure that the enclosure is a safe, suitable environment for the bears and then assess how well we think they’ll adjust to this new enclosure. Bai Yun is very familiar with this exhibit space and has raised most of her cubs here, so we expect her to take it in stride. But, is the cub ready? Yun Zi’s siblings all made the transition at about this same age, and developmentally he appears to be ready.

Another important factor we have to consider is where we will shift the other bears at the facility. If Bai Yun and Yun Zi are moving to the left exhibit (currently housing Zhen Zhen), where will we move Zhen? With the recent birth of Yun Zi, we now have five pandas here at the Research Station, more than we’ve ever had before! And along with having more bears comes minor challenges in terms of housing arrangements. We have a number of enclosures; however, it’s important that we consider the relationship and proximity of the bears to one another. For instance, will it cause Zhen stress/anxiety if she is housed adjacent to Bai Yun where she can see and smell her mother? Perhaps. So we do our best to avoid this type of potential stressor and don’t house Zhen Zhen next to Bai.

Then there are still other logistics to consider, such as research needs and meeting the interests of our guests. Because Su Lin participates in our daily hearing study sessions, she will remain in the main public viewing exhibit adjacent to Bai and Yun Zi. This exhibit is the most suitable for facilitating the hearing sessions. Gao Gao will remain in an enclosure behind the scenes for the time being until we have completed our hearing study sessions with Su Lin. Once complete, we will most likely begin a rotation with Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and Gao Gao between the off-exhibit areas and the main public viewing exhibits. This will provide some variety for the bears as well as allow guests the opportunity to see different bears over time. We know that each panda has his/her own group of fans! So far, the bears are handling the changes very well, and we hope to complete the transition in the next few days.

So, this is just a little insight into the decision-making process that goes into a “seemingly” simple transition of a few bears into a new enclosure. There are a lot of factors to consider, and we always do our best to ensure the well-being of our bears.

Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Watch video of Yun Zi’s first day in his new exhibit!


Panda Sisters

Zhen Zhen reaches out to her sister, Su Lin.

Zhen Zhen reaches out to her sister, Su Lin.

Our two sisters, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, have been housed next to each other in the main exhibit areas for the past several months. These exhibits are designed to keep the giant pandas separate, with no real visual contact between the two. Well, Thursday morning, September 24, for the first time, we opened the howdy gate between the two exhibits and allowed Su Lin and Zhen Zhen protected contact with one another (see post Hello, Gorgeous Panda). The howdy gate allows protected contact in that the bears can see and smell each other through the mesh in the gate while still being separate, and therefore protected.

pandas_zz_su_2Once out on exhibit, Su Lin approached the gate first and peered into the adjacent enclosure. Zhen Zhen was sitting near her pond and she noticed Su Lin at the gate right away. She observed her big sister for a few moments and then tentatively started to make her way over toward the gate. As ZZ cautiously approached the gate, she bleated (a friendly vocalization) softly a few times. The two bears began smelling each other through the gate, and this nose-to-nose interaction lasted for quite awhile. Gradually their cautious behavior began to relax a bit, and Su Lin started rolling on her back in a playful, inviting gesture. Before long they appeared quite comfortable with one another, and they began displaying play behaviors that we don’t often see, including rearing up and playful running and roll invitations. It was clear that the two very much enjoyed interacting with one another.

pandas_zz_su_3At one point during my observation session, Su Lin did take a break and eat some bamboo in her enclosure. During the time when Su was away eating, ZZ sat and waited at the gate trying to look in and see where her big sister had gone. And as soon as Su returned to the gate, the two began playing again.

We are planning on providing PC (protected contact) again with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. So if you live in San Diego, you may be able to watch the two sisters interact and play with one another. Or for those of you who don’t live nearby, we’ll do our best to get their interactions out on Panda Cam. If it’s anything like Thursday, it should be quite entertaining!

Pamela Crowe is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.


Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, ate too much, and took a moment to reflect on the things they are most grateful for. This year I am thankful for my family, and especially for my new baby daughter at home. My Thanksgiving was a bit different this year though…instead of baking apple pies and other goodies to bring over to my family’s house, I was watching our new sloth bear, Buddha.

Thanksgiving day was his second day in his new exhibit, and we needed to be there to observe how he reacted to his new enclosure. As my co-worker Suzanne mentioned in her previous blog, A New Bear On the Block, Buddha will be the first participant in a new research study conducted by the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit.

In this new study, we will look at how well pre-marking an animal’s enclosure with his own scent helps reduce a stress response to translocation. Often animals need to be moved from one enclosure to another, and we know that this translocation process can be a stressful experience. Therefore, we’re always looking for ways to reduce this stress response and promote well-being. So, if we pre-mark an animal’s enclosure with his own scent, will that ease the transition?

To test this, we divided Buddha’s exhibit in half, marking one side with his (previously collected) feces and fur, and leaving the other side as our control without his scent. Then we observed his behavior. Would he show a preference for the side that contains his own smell? Would he still demonstrate the typical stress-related behaviors? Or would he calmly explore his new environment?

On day one of the study, Suzanne observed some interesting behavior. I, unfortunately, didn’t observe much on day two. Buddha chose to spend most of Thanksgiving morning out of view in the back bedroom area. Not only was my data a bit uninteresting, but it was also pouring rain. I got drenched!

So, despite the fact that I would have rather been home celebrating the holiday with my family, at least we finished the first phase of this study. And the thing is, the bears (and all the animals at the Zoo for that matter) don’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. In this line of work we have to bend to their needs and schedules sometimes before our own.

We haven’t begun analyzing any of the data yet, but check back soon for an update on what we’ve learned from this interesting new study. And here’s hoping that the next phase of this study doesn’t fall on Christmas!

Pamela Crowe is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.