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About Author: Suzanne Hall

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261

Xiao Liwu: Weaning Wrap-up

Xiao LiwuLate last week, we separated Xiao Liwu from his mother for the last time. He remained in the main viewing exhibits for a few days while Bai Yun was shifted out of the area so that they were not across a door from one another. We have found in the past that in the first few days post-weaning, the cub can be quite vocal, calling for mother as it wanders about. This can arouse a response from Bai Yun; therefore, we find it best to put some distance between them to allow our adult female to remain relaxed.

As anticipated, our littlest bear has shown some tendency toward wandering and vocalizing in the last few days. This is normal. As mentioned in a previous post, the cub is always the one most unhappy about the separation and would prefer to prolong his or her relationship with momma bear. The lure of a constant companion, playmate, and milk source is strong! Her absence from the cub’s life is something the youngster clearly responds to. However, past cubs seem to move on from their discontent within about a week or so, and we expect Xiao Liwu will follow suit.

For her part, Bai Yun does not seem to reciprocate the sentiment that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Keepers have reported that she is doing very well post-separation. The only restlessness observed with her are those typical of food anticipation, the same bouts observed when the cub was with her daily. Otherwise, Bai Yun is very focused on priority number one: her bamboo and other food. For our matriarch, it’s business as usual. Her job of cub rearing now done, she appears thoroughly content.

Xiao Liwu has been shifted off exhibit to the upper bedroom area where he is closer to his keepers. This is beneficial to the little bear, as the keepers are poised to fill some of the social void left by his mother’s absence. Already, they have had nice sessions with him during which they have been able to hand-feed him apple slices and offer him back scratches. The apple slices are a small victory because, as you may recall, he has been unwilling to eat anything but bamboo to this point. Having a food source over which the keepers can bond with the youngster will enable them to build a stronger relationship. These bonding sessions become an important foundation for future training and husbandry that requires cooperation and mutual trust between keepers and animal.

While Xiao Liwu will be off exhibit for some time to facilitate his keeper-bonding experience, there is a silver lining for some of our panda fans. Patriarch Gao Gao has been shifted back to the main viewing area, where he will remain for the next few months. When you observe the bears, you may notice that both Gao Gao and Bai Yun have small shaved patches now, as both underwent routine veterinary check-ups at the end of last week. With that out of the way, and weaning complete, our panda facility will now settle into a new routine that will be the status quo for the near term.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu: Leafy Greens.

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Weaning Xiao Liwu: Leafy Greens

Xiao Liwu is surrounded by leafy greens.

Xiao Liwu is surrounded by leafy greens.

After many days of short separations, giant pandas Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu were doing well. Both bears had a few hours each morning to be on their own, and both spent that time eating heartily. Reunions between them at the midday feed were non-events. Although occasional nursing bouts were observed, it did not appear that the frequency of nursing had been accelerated. Further, the duration of observed nursing bouts was very short, lasting only about two minutes. This suggested that either mother Bai Yun’s milk supply had begun to dwindle or that the nursing was more about comfort-seeking than calorie-seeking on the part of our youngster, Xiao Liwu.

Since no other comfort-seeking behaviors had been observed, we opted to move forward with our weaning protocol. Last week, we lengthened the time the two bears are separated. The two are no longer reunited at midday and instead are separate still as they are served lunch. Access to each other is now delayed until the end of the workday, when the last keeper is ready to head home.

Did you notice? Probably not, since the bears showed no overt response to this change. We have only one report of “Wu” knocking on the door that separated mother from son, and it was a brief event. They are both taking this change very much in stride. In fact, by all accounts, Wu seems to be handling this separation better than any of his siblings. He is a very relaxed bear.

I can’t say why it is that he seems so much better able to adapt to the weaning process than his siblings. Perhaps it is because of his penchant for bamboo. He still refuses to eat anything but his leafy greens, despite our keepers’ gallant attempts to offer him something—anything—that he might like as an alternate treat. We know that adult pandas have to spend a lot of time feeding on bamboo to meet their caloric needs. Perhaps Wu is not so concerned about weaning because he, too, is very focused on bamboo feeding. To get his calories, he isn’t relying on carrots and apples and Gao Gao bread and honey-soaked softened biscuits (keepers have been really trying to entice him!), so he has to take in as much bamboo as he can get his paws on, and there is little time to worry about his mother.

In fact, these weaning separations may be helping him to some degree. Our little panda actually gained some weight in the first nine days of our separation protocol. Perhaps having the bamboo all to himself is beneficial to him. It will take some time, and several more weigh-ins, to see if his weigh gain trajectory alters as a result of weaning separations.

In a short time, if both do well, we will be looking to complete the weaning process for Xiao Liwu. Though some of the details have yet to be worked out, be sure that our keeper staff stands ready to provide Wu with the added social support all of our past cubs have needed once he is independent of his mother. All of our previous cubs have incurred a short period of pining for their mother after weaning was complete (generally not reciprocated by Bai Yun, they’d be sad to learn), but perhaps our bamboo boy will pine the least of all. He’s very busy, after all, getting in those leafy greens.

Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu: Conflict over Calories.

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Weaning Xiao Liwu: Conflict over Calories

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Over the last week or so, we have allowed our giant panda mother-cub pair access to more space to see what kind of behavioral pattern develops. We’ve watched Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu closely during this time, both with formalized behavioral observations and informal sessions by keepers and staff. What we have seen is rather typical for this stage in their lives together. Bai Yun is food-focused, moving around both exhibits in search of the choicest bamboo and other snacks. Xiao Liwu is also becoming increasingly food-focused, though interested only in bamboo. When he is finished eating, he follows his mother around, like a little shadow.

Interestingly, this cub is not ingesting much kibble or produce. This makes him rather unique among his siblings in that they were motivated to feed on these calorie-dense items. Xiao Liwu, on the other hand, is limiting all of his non-milk calories to bamboo, which makes it that much more important that he gets plenty of his leafy greens. Since he is nursing very infrequently, probably less than once each day, his bamboo intake is meeting most of his energetic needs.

This is where a conflict arises. Bai Yun is quite determined to meet her caloric needs as well, and though she ingests a lot of produce and kibble, she’s also keen to exploit the bamboo resources we provide. Right now, she has a little competition for the choicest bits, and we have witnessed several bouts of wrestling over bamboo between mother and cub as a result. She’ll even steal the cub’s bamboo and hold him at bay, squealing, while she munches on the remnants of what Wu was working on. Though we provide the two bears with plenty of food, sometimes Wu loses out to his mother with respect to the bamboo he wants. Although he can usually walk away and find something else to snack on, we wonder to what degree his ability to meet his caloric needs is inhibited by his mother.

When not feeding, Xiao Liwu moves about the exhibits in fairly close proximity to his mother. Bai Yun, on the other hand, has not been observed following her son. This is a pattern we have observed with past panda cubs. If the little ones had their way, weaning separations would be delayed by months, or even years! Who wants to give up on the milk bar and the built-in playmate? But Bai Yun is less interested in fulfilling these roles as time goes by. Rejection of nursing bouts is something we have seen off and on for some time. And play bouts are not always welcome. For example, we recently witnessed a bout in which Wu bounded onto his mother with a sudden leap, resulting in Bai Yun biting down hard enough on him to elicit a loud yelp. This brought the play bout to a skidding halt, which may have been the result Bai Yun was going for. As this kind of interaction becomes more common, it reinforces for us the importance of considering momma bear in the weaning equation.

The indicators suggest to us that we should move ahead with our weaning protocol. For this reason, you will notice that Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will now have periods of separation, each one housed in one of the main exhibits for a few hours each day. The bears will be separated in the morning and given their own foods to chow down on. The cub will not have to worry about his mother stealing his breakfast, and Bai Yun won’t have to worry about play bouts interrupting her meal. We’ll bring them back together about lunchtime and repeat the process the following day. We will, as usual, be watching closely to see how the bears adapt. Stay tuned to this channel for further updates as the process unfolds.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu.

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Weaning Xiao Liwu

Xiao Liwu enjoys a bamboo lunch in his expanded habitat.

Xiao Liwu enjoys a bamboo lunch in his expanded habitat.

When a giant panda cub is totally weaned from his mother in the wild places of China, one of two things likely happens: either his mother runs him off with aggressive behavior, as has been noted with some brown bears, or the mother and cub simply wander away from each other and begin separate lives. Many panda fans worry that that final weaning event is a sudden change for the bears, but in reality it is the culmination of a longer process that begins some months before, when the cub develops his bamboo-feeding dentition.

At about a year of age, the cub’s diet changes from one of 100 percent maternal milk to one incorporating his staple adult food, bamboo. He starts by feeding on small quantities of leaf, mastering the process of chewing and swallowing a solid food. Gradually, the cub ingests more and more bamboo and needs less caloric support from mother’s milk. By the time a final weaning separation occurs, he may only have been nursing once a day, or even skipping days between suckling bouts. The development of this nutritional independence takes time, and thus, weaning is not accomplished overnight.

Xiao Liwu turned 18 months old on January 29, 2014, and we have begun preparations for weaning him from his mother, Bai Yun. Many of you have noticed changes in the access given to our mother-cub unit, as they are now regularly seen exploring both the left- and right-hand exhibits. We have opened the door between these two usually separate spaces, allowing the pair to freely explore either side, moving independently or together as they see fit. This is an opportunity for both animals to become comfortable with the right-hand exhibit, which Bai Yun hasn’t seen in nearly two years; the cub has never experienced it before.

During this period we will be watching the pandas to see how they are utilizing this newly enlarged space. Do they spend more time in close proximity or separate? Does the cub follow his mother everywhere or explore alone? Does Bai Yun seem to move away from her cub when he approaches? The answers to these questions will tell us more about Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu’s readiness for weaning and will inform our decision-making as we move through this process. We aren’t in any rush here.

The weaning period is sometimes a difficult one for our blog readers and panda fans. There is often concern about the well-being of our bears during this time. Bear in mind, however, that a zoo setting is unlike a wild one in that there are barriers to animal dispersal. Simply put: our animals reside in enclosures, and they are not free to wander away from each other as they might in the wild. We have to help them adhere to their natural tendencies by opening up new spaces.

By making changes to the access our bears have to the spaces around them, and to each other, we are facilitating a natural process that is taking place in wild habitat even as we speak. In doing so, we are respecting the health and well-being of both mother and cub, guided by the best practices that biology, science, and husbandry allow.

I will update you periodically as to the status of our weaning process. In the meantime, I encourage all of our newest panda fans to read up on past weaning events with other panda cubs, in blogs such as:

Weaning Panda Cubs

Weaning Zhen Zhen: And So It Begins

A Big Step Forward

In these, you can find more details about what we know about this period in a panda’s life and the importance of remembering that this is not just about the cub but also the mother. You can get a flavor for how the process unfolds and how past cubs have responded to our weaning protocols. After eight years of blog-writing, our panda archives contain a wealth of information that you can access to learn about this and any other panda-specific topic you might be curious about.

One final note: To make room for our mother-cub pair and changing needs, we have moved Gao Gao to our off-exhibit area. You may see less of him on Panda Cam, but he is still here, happily munching away on bamboo and getting lots of attention from our staff. He won’t be back on exhibit again for about a month, as the weaning process will be focused in the main exhibit spaces.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Yi Lu Ping (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi.

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Yi Lu Ping An (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi

The time has come to say goodbye to our good-natured young panda, Yun Zi. Yesterday, January 9, 2014. He embarked on his most momentous adventure yet—a move to his homeland. After crating up easily, our boy was loaded into a vehicle for the trip to Los Angeles, where he caught his flight to China. Thanks to the diligence and careful planning of our staff, he is well prepared for his journey.

The keepers worked to ready Yun Zi for all of the transitions he is about to make. He began crate training some weeks ago, getting used to the transport crate he will live in for a few days as he hops across the pond and heads up to the mountains of his ancestral homeland. As anticipated for such a smart and easy-going boy, he adapted to his new crate easily, spending time feeding inside it and accepting treats from his keepers through the openings of the crate.

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Keepers have also been preparing him for the dietary transition he will undergo. In China, the pandas are not fed the low-starch, high-fiber biscuits and kibble they are used to getting in San Diego but instead receive a specially made formulation of bread that is foreign to our bears. Our keepers have access to that bread recipe and for some time have been whipping it up in our on-site kitchen so that Yun Zi could adapt to this new culinary staple. Thankfully, he had taken to the new bread, perhaps better than any of our returnees ever had.  This means dietary changes in China won’t be a big deal for our boy.

Since he is traveling in winter, staff wanted to prepare Yun Zi for the big change in temperatures he will experience. Keepers had been fattening him up a bit, and he has little rolls of flesh that will serve as extra insulation against the cooler mountain air. He looked nice and robust.

Staff has also prepared videos to leave with Yun Zi’s new Chinese handlers that detail aspects of the training he has received. This will help his new keepers to better understand the commands he has been taught, and, hopefully, will enable them to continue to use his training to facilitate future husbandry and veterinary procedures. Our video contains shots of Yun Zi sitting quietly while having his blood drawn, for example; his training allows this procedure without the use of anesthetic. This is a highly desirable, low-stress way to get biomedical data from him, and we wanted to be sure his new handlers are aware of his capabilities.

Yun Zi isn’t traveling alone on this voyage. He is attended by his primary keeper, Jen, who has been with him from birth. She had been actively engaged in his training, both during and prior to his preparation for departure to China. Yun Zi knows and trusts her, and this will be a comfort to him on his journey. In addition, a veterinarian is accompanying our boy on his flight, should there be any medical concerns to address. We anticipate that will be unlikely.

On Wednesday, the keepers began preparing his food bundles for the trip, and I know they were selecting choice bamboo culm to keep him content on the flight. Jen will ensure he receives regular munchies throughout the trip and will regularly refresh his water and clean up his crate to keep him comfortable. All of the plans and preparations are in place.

All that’s left now is to wave goodbye. 

Farewell, Yun Zi. You were a fun and exciting part of our panda research program. Even from far away, you will always be a member of our San Diego Zoo giant panda family. Yi lu ping an.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

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Prodigious Panda Proceedings

Being a panda mother is hard work! Bai Yun takes a well-deserved nap.

Being a panda mother is hard work! Bai Yun takes a well-deserved nap.

Monday was an exciting day for North American zoos holding giant pandas! We are thrilled for our colleagues at Zoo Atlanta, who welcomed not one but two panda cubs as their hero mother Lun Lun gave birth. As a twin birth had not been witnessed in the US in a while, this occasion is especially momentous. We have our fingers crossed that things continue to go well for the Atlanta bears and staff in the next few critical days.

Twinning in giant pandas is an issue of interest to us, because although females give birth to twins nearly as often as they have singletons, the giant panda mother appears unable to successfully care for two cubs simultaneously (see Pandas: Are Two Better Than One?). While there are a few anecdotal accounts of finding panda twins of significant age in the wild, in most cases these reports are not well substantiated. A female in a Japanese zoo several years ago successfully reared twins, but she was the fortunate beneficiary of a lot of support from the zoo staff. Keepers hand-fed her at times or took her cubs to an incubator from time to time to allow her to rest. While her case offers a glimpse into the possibilities for twin rearing in panda mothers, it is not comparable to the solitary effort required by a free-ranging wild panda mother.

Panda mothers in Chinese breeding centers have allowed us to watch a variety of their responses to a twin birth. Many mothers initially do try to care for both cubs, cradling and grooming their twins for a few hours or days before ultimately giving up and rearing only one. Some females don’t put any effort into caring for both cubs and instead focus on one from the very start. It would be interesting to follow those mothers through multiple years to see if their strategy changes with each twin birth or if you can predict that a female who has attempted to rear twins once will do so again in the future. As of this writing, I do not know the answer to that question. What we can say is that at some point, a mother of twins has to make a choice about which cub she will care for and which will be abandoned to its fate.

The San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit has invested considerable time in trying to understand what factors play a role in determining which twin cub a panda mother selects for nurturing. Is it the birth order that matters most? Or do mothers choose larger, more robust cubs? Perhaps they prefer a specific gender of cub? Is the mother’s decision influenced by whether or not she is a first-time mom? Our work is using data compiled from Chinese breeding centers and twin births around the globe throughout the known history of giant pandas in captivity. Soon we will be able to answer several of these questions.

Our Chinese counterparts have demonstrated repeatedly that with twin swapping and good nutrition, a rejected panda twin is not necessarily fated to die but instead can embark on a healthy, productive life. We know that Lun Lun’s offspring will be offered great care, whether from mother bear’s embrace or from their well-trained staff while in an incubator. With a little luck, we may all get to watch a charming pair of panda cubs grow up right here in North America—and that would indeed be a milestone for our panda population.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Xiao Liwu: Meeting those Milestones. Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam.

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Xiao Liwu: Meeting those Milestones

Mother and cub engage in a wrestling session.

Mother and cub engage in a wrestling session.

I have had the opportunity to observe panda mother and son, Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, quite a bit lately, and I have noted that the cub’s behavioral development appears right on track with respect to his siblings. He is at an exciting age for a panda, a time when the learning curve is a little less steep than it was a few months back, and Xiao Liwu is busy exploring every nook and cranny of his environment…when he isn’t napping, of course. Babies do need their rest!

One of the major milestones our little boy is working on is bamboo feeding. Now, he isn’t yet ingesting it as a food staple. Xiao Liwu still relies on mother bear to provide him with milk to satisfy his caloric needs. But he is learning to handle the leafy material, working it in his paws and practicing with his pseudothumb. The cub spends time mouthing bamboo, stuffing a leaf or two in his mouth and chewing, chewing, chewing…until he ultimately spits it out. No doubt there has been some incidental ingestion of the plant, but as the necessary teeth are not all in place yet (that occurs at about 12 months of age), he doesn’t have the tools with which to begin efficiently processing bamboo. That time is coming soon, however, and in the next few months, we will begin to see him regularly ingesting the plant that will become his staple dietary ingredient.

Play is an important part of his behavioral repertoire at this time. Play is often scientifically defined as an apparently purposeless behavior, because it doesn’t provide an obvious payoff. It doesn’t help a panda obtain food, or secure a mate, or ensure safety and survival. Yet for a cub, play is an important part of healthy development. Locomotory play, including frisking about on the ground and twirling around in the trees, helps to develop strength and coordination as the cub learns to control his growing body. Object play allows the cub to effect control over elements in his environment, influencing the development of his confidence and coordination. Social play teaches him the nuances of interacting with others of his species, including how to read and deliver appropriate social cues. Yet this “purposeless behavior” may only seem purposeless in the immediate sense. There are payoffs down the road, associated with neurological development and perhaps even learned behavior.

Play is a behavior that peaks in the late juvenile period before bottoming out as the bear becomes an adult. Interestingly, the juvenile period is also the time of greatest growth of that portion of the brain known as the cerebellum, an area that plays a role in coordinating smooth motor function. Adulthood, as we all know, is the time when we take on the mantle of caring for ourselves, and for the panda that means spending most of its waking hours foraging and feeding. There must also be time for procuring a mate or rearing young. There is little time for frivolity, and efficiency matters. By the time a mammal has reached adulthood, its neurological development is complete, and it can now reap the benefits of what its brain has been trained to do.

But while scientists are still unraveling the mysteries of the function of play, you can simply witness the fun as Xiao LiWu continues on his developmental journey. Enjoy it while he is little, either in person or on Panda Cam, because one thing this scientist can tell you definitively: watching that panda cub play is absolutely charming!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Through the Bear Lens.

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Through the Bear Lens

Xiao Liwu is learning how to be a bear while being unbearably cute!

Xiao Liwu is learning how to be a bear while being unbearably cute!

Panda cubs undergo a pretty amazing transformation in their life. They are completely dependent upon their mother for safety, nutrition, warmth, and comfort. It’s fairly easy to project human emotions to what we see taking place in the den in those early weeks: mother bear is so careful with, and attentive to, her cub, appearing to be the perfect image of a loving mother. The fact is that without her careful attention, the panda cub would not survive.

Pandas start out as very tiny, helpless individuals, unable to thermoregulate on their own. Their eyes and ears are sealed closed. Because they only grew in utero for about 50 days, many of the cub’s biological systems are not fully developed at the time of birth, and the cub needs many weeks of postpartum growth before it can see, hear, and thermoregulate. A panda cub would die without the diligent care of its mother, and her behavior is finely tuned by millions of years of evolution to ensure the survival of her young. It may look like love, but to a bear, a mother’s behavior pattern is more simply defined as a necessity.

The cubs grow rapidly. Xiao Liwu, so far the smallest of our six cubs, has increased his body weight approximately 25-fold in his first 175 days. Small as he is, he far outpaces human growth patterns, in which the average infant increases its body weight by only about 3-fold in the same time period. Body weight is not the only area in which a human comparison doesn’t hold: his physical development has also proceeded well along a bear-typical pattern. At less than six months of age, Xiao Liwu can fully explore his exhibit. He can climb to the bottom of the moat or the top of the den structure. Soon, he’ll be scaling the heights of the trees in his space.

To endure these climbs, pandas must be capable of falling and shaking it off; I’ve seen youngsters fall from the top of 40-foot trees in the enclosures of China’s Wolong Breeding Base, only to bounce, roll, and shake it off. Our trees don’t approach that height, and Xiao Liwu will be able to withstand a fall from them with little repercussion. He won’t be the first of our cubs to bounce.

As Liwu has grown, his relationship with his mother has changed. He no longer needs her regular attention, as his fur and body fat afford him the protection from the elements he needs to deal with cold or damp. He no longer feeds every two to three hours, so his mother need not worry about providing him access to her mammary glands so frequently. Even so, this growing baby needs an increasing quantity of milk each day, as his body and brain need fuel to develop. Bai Yun must meet his growing nutritional requirements while attending to her own. At this time, Liwu is focused on exploring his new, interesting life outside the den, and Bai Yun is focused on eating for two.

In the wild, a panda mother who did not take seriously the need to consume copious amounts of bamboo would risk the life of her cub and perhaps herself. Bai Yun is not in the wild, of course, but her behavior is constrained by her evolutionary past, and she takes her feeding time seriously. Do not be alarmed if you see her resist the cub’s attempts at social play while she feeds, or if she blocks him from access to her food. It is her job to eat. If he is getting in the way of her getting her job done, she will let him know. It may appear to the human eye that Bai Yun is being stubborn or unkind, but to a bear, she is just taking care of business.

Bai Yun does make time for play with her offspring. Social play with pandas, and with all bears, can look quite rough. These animals are equipped with claws and teeth that appear menacing when exposed. But exposure of teeth does not mean Bai Yun is growling at her cub (she has, not once in her years in San Diego, ever been noted to growl outside of a social encounter with an adult male). It is simply her version of a “play face,” a well-documented aspect of social play among mammals. It looks intimidating because we are human, and we are interpreting her behavior through a human lens. But Liwu is better able to read her play signals. What’s more, please recall that the Panda Cam offers no opportunity for you to hear the play sessions. What you don’t know is: play bouts are typically silent. No squalling or complaining from the cub means he is content with the play session. Bai Yun is not hurting him; he is instead getting something positive out of that interaction. Reading the signs through a bear lens lends itself to a different interpretation of this play than a human lens can provide.

Bai Yun has raised five cubs to the sub-adult stage with great success; all indications are that Liwu is on a healthy trajectory as well. We have no indication—not one—that this cub is not thriving. His weight, like some of his siblings, has plateaued at points. Yet the overall weight trajectory is on the increase. His behavioral development is strong, even advanced when compared with some of his siblings (Yun Zi comes to mind). He is content and relaxed. And Bai Yun is in excellent condition, maintaining a weight above 100 kilograms. Everything suggests that things are going well for Liwu and his mother. Reading the signs through a bear lens, our staff couldn’t be more pleased with our pandas’ progress.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Big Changes for Little Bears.

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Perfectly Panda

Bai Yun is taking good care of her cub and herself.

Bai Yun and her cub are doing well, and their relationship has been evolving in predictable panda ways. As the cub grows, he can get bigger bellyfuls of milk with each feeding, which is followed by longer periods of sound rest. This means Bai Yun has more and more free time. What has she been doing with that free time?

Bai Yun continues to increase her time spent feeding outside of the den. She is taking in large quantities of leaf eater biscuits and produce. She is feeding on increasingly more bamboo as well, although she is not quite back to pre-pregnancy consumption levels. Bamboo feeding is a process, and it takes time, so as her intake continues to increase, we can expect her to be out of the den for longer periods. As the cub grows, the demands of lactation will also increase, so she will need every calorie she can get her paws on to ensure an abundant milk supply. Luckily, our keepers stand ready to assist.

Sometimes Bai Yun comes out of the den to rest on her own. She can most commonly be found only a few feet away from the den door, in her bedroom. This allows her a little extra space, some cub-free time, and some fresh air. The air in the bedroom is also a little cooler than the den, as our AC unit feeds directly to that room. Perhaps this has been a factor for her during some of our recent heat waves.

She has been utilizing the garden room, too. Those long-time viewers of Panda Cam will recall her favorite platform in that area. She’s taken several recent naps there. Sometimes Bai Yun takes the cub out with her. She’ll head out to the bedroom to feed or rest and plunk her youngster down beside her. Often the cub is asleep during these forays.

Occasionally, he is awake and squirming on the floor next to his mother. Once, Bai Yun even placed the cub on the scale in the bedroom, and keepers were able to use that opportunity to record a weight for him (thank you, Bai Yun!). So far, she has only introduced the cub to the bedroom; the garden room remains a destination for some future date of Bai Yun’s choosing.

Sometimes, Bai Yun can be observed wrestling with her offspring. She’ll turn the youngster around in her paws, nibbling at him playfully. At this stage, the cub is not able to return the play with much vigor, but watch closely—that will change soon. We’ve already seen the cub mouthing his mother’s paws, gnawing on digits. One element missing from your play-bout experience is the audio that staff can hear. Throughout most of Bai Yun’s play sessions, the cub is silent. Obviously, Bai Yun’s play activity is not bothersome to him. It may even be good for him in some way. Certainly it seems important for Bai Yun in some way we don’t yet understand.

None of what we have seen with Bai Yun since the birth of this cub is unusual or unexpected. She’s been the excellent mother we anticipated she would be. The cub continues to grow and develop in a way that pleases us. Mother and cub appear perfectly panda, both physically and behaviorally.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: Me Time.

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Pandas: Me Time

Hi, panda fans! I can almost see you.

For most of the last week, panda mother Bai Yun has been given access to her garden room at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station throughout the day. She hasn’t really been out there much, though we have noticed her sitting in her sunroom and looking out to the grassy garden floor. It’s as if she is toying with the idea of exploring, but not yet sure if she should indulge herself.

We offer garden room access because it is the natural progression for a postpartum panda to need more time away from her cub, not because she tires of caring for her youngster, but because nature requires this of her. A wild panda isn’t provided with high calorie, nutrient-dense biscuits, yams, and carrots each day. Instead, she must rely on the nutrition provided by bamboo, which is comparatively nutrient and calorie poor. As her appetite comes back online from her postpartum fast, and the energy drain of lactating for an increasingly hungry youngster take its toll, mother panda must spend more and more time out of the den meeting her dietary needs.

Of course, Bai Yun is not a wild panda, and she does benefit from regular feedings by her keepers. She can count on twice daily provisioning of the best bamboo we have to offer, and a nice pile of supplemental foods to boot. She doesn’t have to wander far or be gone long to meet her needs. But she still seems to have that drive to be out of the den, away from the cub, for periods of the day. Surely those among us with children of our own can relate to the need for a little “me time”?

And so we have offered Bai Yun her garden room. In the past, once she determines that it is time, she will move outside during the day and rest atop her platform. She seems to enjoy the breeze, the sunshine, and the opportunity to interact with her keepers. Bai Yun is still very close to the den and can easily hear the cub should it vocalize a need. But there is something about emerging from the darkness of the den into the light of a warm fall afternoon that seems to be of value to Bai Yun.

At the moment, she’s taking that emergence slowly. Today, after the morning cub exam, she chose to lie down in the bedroom, a few feet from the den. She was actually napping with her head hanging out into the sunroom. This absence wasn’t driven by hunger; she just wanted to be out of the den for a bit. She is beginning to seek that “me time” at her own pace. We expect that over the coming week or two we will see her explore that garden room and settle in atop her favorite platform in the corner.

Speaking of the cub exam, our staff managed to get their hands on the little guy in the den this morning. With an abdominal girth of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters), and a length of 16 inches (41.5 centimeters), you can understand why he reminds me of a sausage: he’s nearly as big around as he is long! Historically, however, he is not our heaviest cub thus far at 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). So he’s a petite sausage, I suppose.

Mei Sheng started out a little lighter than his sisters but became one of our larger cubs after several months. Whether or not our newest panda cub will follow in his eldest brother’s footsteps remains to be seen.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Gets Keeper Comfort.

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