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About Author: Suzanne Hall

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255

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.

View more photos in our Panda Gallery…

Click to enlarge

 

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Panda Cub Gets Keeper Comfort

The cub at one month of age.

At the first panda cub exam last week, our staff had a very brief, three-minute opportunity to examine the cub and get some data on its weight and health status. The first exam is always very short, as we are keen on ensuring the well-being of Bai Yun by not keeping her away from her cub longer than is comfortable for her. During last week’s exam, the cub was very vocal, and Bai Yun certainly noticed. This made it all the more imperative to move quickly.

In anticipation of a second exam, the husbandry staff has been acclimating our little panda to their presence and touch, with the goal of making the cub more comfortable with being handled. A more comfortable cub is a less vocal cub. A less vocal cub means that mother bear is more relaxed while out of the den. A more relaxed mother bear means longer opportunities to get data on the development of this endangered species during the exams.

The acclimation process has involved the keepers securing Bai Yun in her sun room while she is eating. They then sit quietly at the mouth of the den and speak softly to the cub. They reach out a gloved hand and gently stroke the youngster while talking to it. One of our keepers made a sweet discovery while doing this: if she placed her hand under the cub’s head, it would press itself down against her hand and wrist, effectively snuggling in to the warmth of her palm.

This discovery came in very handy yesterday at our second cub exam. Once our team had gathered, Bai Yun left her den for breakfast and the door to the bedroom and den was closed. When a keeper reached into the den to pick up the cub, we realized that the desensitization efforts were paying off–the cub did not vocalize. It was much more relaxed about being touched. Once lifted from the den floor, and again while held at the exam table, the cub snuggled its head into the palm of the keeper.

The cub obviously felt much more secure this week. Our little panda vocalized very infrequently during the exam and with much less intensity. This meant that Bai Yun continued to eat peacefully in the sun room, uninterested in what was going on behind the closed door. Because of this, we were able to give the cub a more thorough exam this week, and the youngster was out of the den for about 9.5 minutes.

I know our panda fans are very interested in the cute and fuzzy aspects of our littlest panda, but for me the big story this week is how well the keepers succeeded in improving the cub exam experience for our cub and mother. I am very proud to say that the well-being of our animals is something we take very seriously, even when our animal is a tiny little creature whose ears and eyes aren’t yet open.

See more images in our Panda Photo Gallery.

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

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Pandas: When One Door Closes

A 22-day-old cutie!

Giant panda Bai Yun has continued to lengthen her absences from the den. The primary reason for this is that she is now eating much more than she was a week ago. For her first few den departures, she would be gone only long enough to grab a drink and perhaps eliminate waste. Now she is taking time to feed herself. This morning, I watched her wolf down a pile of biscuits like nobody’s business! See below for video of the cub during this time.

Her cub has gotten used to her absences. For much of the time Bai Yun is out, the youngster will rest in the den or move about gently on the floor, croaking quietly. No more flailing and screaming while Momma is away. While Bai Yun ate biscuits today, the cub did emit a few squawks, a vocalization of higher intensity than croaks. Despite this, our girl continued to feed. Clearly, she was unconcerned about a few complaints from the cub.

Keepers have begun to test interactions with Bai Yun at the gate of her sun room. When she is out feeding, the keeper approaches the mesh of the door and gently calls to her. Bai Yun can choose to interact or not. If she does, the keeper hand feeds her with a steady drip of apples and carrots. The object is to see how long Bai Yun is comfortable focusing on the keeper. It also demonstrates to us that Bai Yun is emerging from the solitude of her den world and is ready to move toward a more regular husbandry routine.

Once Bai Yun appears comfortable with these interactions, the next step is to close the door between her bedroom and sun room, effectively limiting her access to the den. Today I watched as one keeper held her attention at the door while another slowly inched the door closed. Bai Yun glanced at the door as it shut but returned her focus to the keeper and her treats. The door remained closed for two minutes and was then opened again. Our girl did great, staying calm and relaxed through the whole experience. In fact, even though the door was open to her, Bai Yun remained in the sun room for a few minutes more before returning to the den.

Once the keepers are able to keep Bai Yun calm and relaxed for 5 to 10 minutes, we will be ready for our first cub exam. As one keeper holds Bai Yun in the sun room with treats, another keeper will enter the bedroom through a different door and retrieve the cub from the den. The first few exams will be very brief, lasting only a few minutes. This will ensure that we can ease both mother and cub into the regular pattern of cub exams that will occur for the next year of this youngster’s life.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: You Asked, We Answer.

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Pandas: You Asked, We Answer

The panda cub on August 15.

As Bai Yun and her cub continue to do well, staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station have slowly begun to emerge from the constant efforts of watching over the den activities to return to tasks put aside during the crucial early postpartum period. I’ve been reading through some of your comments and questions and thought I could offer some feedback.

Regarding the repeated questions regarding Bai Yun’s age, her health, and her behavior with this cub: Bai Yun is doing just fine! She has been resting a lot, which is entirely normal at this stage postpartum. If this is your first panda cub, I encourage you to read through our blog archives and see that sluggishness on the part of momma bear is de rigueur at this stage. Pandas are bears, after all, and many bears experience months of fasting and rest coupled with the birth and early postpartum rearing of their young (see Pandas, Bears, and Pregnancy).

There have been some really good scientific papers written on the magnificent ability of female bears to lactate and care for their young without eating for long periods, noting that very little muscle wastage is evident despite these energetically costly events. Please don’t worry about Bai Yun. She is built for this, and she is taking good care of herself as well as of her cub. We are very pleased with their progress so far.

As an aside: you can see the activities in the den well, but you can’t see what Bai Yun is doing when she leaves the den. She has been getting regular drinks since day 1 postpartum. She has even been observed feeding on occasion. Although she isn’t consuming much yet, she has spent a little time feeding on bamboo and even snacked on biscuits. Her appetite will come back much faster than those cold-weather hibernators, but it is a gradual process. She is making expected changes to her intake every few days.

A few of you noted that the camera has been showing fewer close ups lately. We’ve started to add our other responsibilities into our day, and so when we do leave the monitoring room, we zoom out so the whole den is visible. I’ve noted that some of you are quick to record snippets of video when there is a nice, tight zoom on the cub. Keep sharing your videos with each other so that everyone can benefit from those close ups!

As to the heat in the area: yes, it’s been blazingly hot and humid in San Diego in the last week. But, as our moderator indicated, there is air conditioning in the bedroom area that opens to the den. This air is set to a constant temperature and can filter into the den. Even so, it can get hot in those mountains of China in the summertime; I recall a very sweaty walk up to George Schaller’s former research base in Wolong one summer afternoon. It was baking. The upshot is that these bears can handle a little heat, and Bai Yun has been very comfortable.

We still haven’t had the opportunity to take the new cub out of the den for its first exam. Bai Yun has been leaving the den, though not yet for the long periods we need to see before cub exams begin. That could change at any moment, based upon her needs, so stay tuned! Until that first cub exam, we won’t have a way to determine the gender of this youngster.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Furry and Fine.

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Panda Cub: Furry and Fine

At last! A glimpse of the cub, now 8 days old, taken on August 6 at 10:30 a.m.

The anticipation had been mounting on Saturday at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, because Bai Yun had not made an excursion from the den since Thursday evening. We knew she was due for a trip out soon. And we were anxious for a good look at her youngster, hoping to see progress in its development over the last 36 hours.

Then, at about 2:37 p.m., Bai Yun indulged us. She first hydrated with a long drink. Then she headed out to her sunroom for a quick snack of bamboo. She only had time for a few bites, but since this was the first time she had eaten since before the birth, we wouldn’t have expected her to settle in for a lengthy feast. Finally she finished up with defecation and urination, pulling extra bamboo about her to make her “bamboo skirt.”

Can you find the cutie in the straw?

We aren’t totally certain what the significance of the bamboo skirt might be. It’s probably a way to hide the site of her waste and mute the scent of it as well. We might imagine that could be important for a wild panda mother that is taking pains to hide her den and her cub from the outside world. At this stage of the game, even when she leaves the den she would not be traveling far, so anything she can do to hide evidence of her presence might be advantageous.

We did get that long look at the cub we were hoping for. And boy, does this cub look good. The belly is rounder, and the limbs look stockier. The neck looks a little thicker. And the body is covered by a coat of white fur that is obviously more dense than before. The physical markers of healthy development are all over this cub.

What’s more, the cub was more tolerant of Bai Yun’s departure from the den. Sure, it squawked its disapproval from time to time, but for most of Momma’s absence the little one bobbed its head and appeared to be rather patiently waiting for her return. As the moment wore on, it appeared to be tiring a bit and put its head down on the floor for a breath or two to rest.

After an absence of nearly six minutes, Bai Yun returned to the den. She immediately scooped up her cub, placed it near her teats and began licking the youngster in a soothing manner. In a flash the cub was thoroughly contented.

We’d expect nothing less from Bai Yun!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Big Belly!

Watch mother and cub daily on Panda Cam.

Here’s video from Yun Zi’s party, held August 1:

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Panda Cub: Big Belly!

Here’s a good glimpse of our newest panda!

Last night, a little after 9, Bai Yun made her first den departure. She stepped out briefly to get a drink of water. Although female pandas generally fast for several days after the birth of their cub, it’s not unusual for them to need a drink of water a day or two postpartum.

We are happy to see that Bai Yun is looking after her own needs; it will be critical to her success in rearing this cub past the first few crucial days of life. Bai Yun is no newbie to the process of cub rearing, and with her most recent cubs she showed us how she has been able to walk the line between providing excellent care to herself while maintaining excellent care of her cub.

So tiny, so loved!

Although Bai Yun was out of the den for only about a minute, her absence from the den afforded us the first good look at her youngster. What we saw is very encouraging. The cub was extremely vocal, registering its complaint over Mother’s absence. To us, that indicates good vigor and a proper behavioral response to the cool air and loss of contact with Mom. The cub was wiggling all over the floor, indicating good strength and energy. And the cub had a nice, round belly, indicating that Bai Yun is providing plenty of milk.

Perfect.

We are not out of the woods yet, but thus far everything looks great in the den.


Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: 1st Overnight.

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Panda Cub: 1st Overnight

Bai Yun keeps her newborn close and out of sight!

I checked into the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station this morning at about 3:30. The keeper on duty before me reported nothing unusual. She had gotten a few very brief glimpses of the cub as Bai Yun shifted position and had heard the cub vocalize on a number of occasions. However, she had also noted several long bouts of resting for both mother and cub.

This was good to hear. After the fatiguing event that is labor, new panda mothers are met with a demanding neonate who needs all of her attention to stay warm and comfortable. The cubs are largely hairless and lacking in body fat; thus, Mom’s warm embrace is essential to their survival in those early days. To keep such a small cub warm, the much larger mother must hold the baby up off the ground in her arms.

This means Bai Yun cannot simply sprawl out in the den to rest. She must instead engage in a balancing act that allows her to rest while snuggling that cub against her body. What’s more, she has to change positions every 20 to 60 minutes to allow the cub access to her teats for lactation. This active postpartum schedule is not unlike that of a human mother who has just given birth, except that, unlike a human, Bai Yun never sets her newborn down. Her own paws and arms are her neonate’s bassinet.

Throughout the early, dark hours of this morning, Bai Yun shifted from resting posture to a nursing posture regularly. Though I was never able to get a good glimpse of the cub nursing, there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest nursing was occurring. Bai Yun held herself in a familiar posture, bracing the newborn against her upper abdomen. She periodically moved the cub across her body as she pushed the youngster from one nipple to the next. The cub vocalized in protest at the adjustments but grew quiet shortly thereafter, probably because it was latched on and suckling.

Hopefully, one of the panda team members will confirm nursing soon, either by observing the cub latched on or by seeing smears of milk on Bai Yun’s fur after a presumed nursing bout. And once Bai Yun relaxes enough to give us a good view of the cub—something we have yet to obtain—we hope to see a full, distended belly that indicates it is well fed.

So far, so good.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Gives Birth.

Note: Our Panda Cam will focus on mother and cub in the den starting at 2 p.m. PT today!

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Bai Yun Gives Birth

Bai Yun cradles her newest cub, born on July 29, 2012!

It’s been a long, crazy, rewarding day at the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. I checked in at 6 this morning, there to relieve the early morning watch. The keeper on duty reported that Bai Yun had had a fairly quiet night resting in her den. However, since about 5 a.m. she had had a few bouts of nest building and genital licking. We’ve been seeing both behaviors from her for the last few days, so initially I thought we were status quo.

As the hour wore on, I noticed that she was not taking long rest periods as in days past. Instead, she would only rest for about 10 minutes before getting up to nest build or lick some more. I wondered if this would be a temporary restlessness or if this would build as the day progressed. At 8 a.m., keepers tried to get Bai Yun to cooperate with an ultrasound procedure. She walked voluntarily into the tunnel where we conduct the exams. However, it became quickly apparent that she was too restless to settle down and lay still, so the ultrasound was scrapped. Shortly after returning to her bedroom and sunroom area, I observed Bai Yun straining to defecate in the sun room. This occurred several times over the next hour. When she moved this straining to the den at about 9 a.m., I began alerting staff on site that Bai Yun may be in the early stages of labor.

As everyone gathered, Bai Yun continued to progress. She intermittently engaged in nest building, licking, and straining. The straining very clearly moved to obvious contractions, and after a few hours she began to grunt along with her contractions. We watched with baited breath, aware that this labor appeared to be taking longer than some of her previous ones. Bai Yun seemed to be lagging with fatigue.

At 2:10 p.m., with a loud squawk, a baby panda made its way into the world! Bai Yun was in a seated position when the cub emerged, and it never even touched the ground before she had it in her embrace. Bai Yun immediately comforted and consoled the cub, and it settled down quickly. Over the next hour, staff watched with relief as Bai Yun seemed to relax and enjoy a few short catnaps with the cub vocalizing intermittently to remind us all that it was still there.

We are so very pleased to have witnessed another wonderful birth. Despite the lengthy labor and the concerns we all had about the impact her age might have on her ability to sustain a pregnancy, Bai Yun has once again shown us that she is, indeed, a hero mother.

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