About Author: Suzanne Hall

Posts by Suzanne Hall


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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!


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.


Pandas, Bears, and Pregnancy

Bai Yun’s ultrasounds have revealed a leg, spine, and heartbeat.

The giant panda diverged from the rest of the bear lineage some 20 million years ago, and they have developed some really unique traits not shared by other bears as a result. Dependence on bamboo for sustenance and the development of the pseudothumb to aid in bamboo acquisition are two examples of differences between pandas and other bears. However, when female pandas are pregnant (or pseudopregnant) they remind of us of just how bear-like they are. Although pandas do not experience the hibernation-like state of cold-weather bears most of the time, the females still couple hibernation-like behaviors with the changes in their pregnancy-related hormones.

Cold weather bears like polars, black and brown bears give birth while denned up in the winter. The females rear their young for the first few months in the quiet warmth of their den, before emerging in the spring. During the denning period, females generally forego food and are largely inactive, producing milk to sustain their young while they themselves conserve energy by resting. Winter is a good time for females to slow down and fast, because they wouldn’t find much food anyway during the frozen months of that season. Springtime is a good time to emerge hungry from the den because food abundance is on the uptick at that time of year, and the mothers leave the den with a long season of good eating ahead of them.

Panda mothers experience the same sluggishness and fasting behaviors, but their window for such behavior isn’t coupled with winter. This is probably because bamboo is not a seasonally available food source; it’s around them all year long.  Pandas tend to den up in the summer months instead. Those are some of the warmest months in the mountain ranges in China, and caring for tiny, fragile neonates during warm months affords the mother the opportunity to keep her cub sufficiently warm even when she needs to leave the den to feed a few weeks after birth, as panda mothers do.

Bai Yun’s hormones are in full pregnancy mode, declining from a peak a few weeks ago towards a presumptive birth window. To that end, we have kept monitoring her hormones, behavior, thermo imaging and ultrasound. What do our results show thus far?

Her behavior is interesting, showing a slight increase in denning activity over a week ago. She is building her nest. She is sluggish and still declining her bamboo, but has also become very finicky with respect to non-bamboo too. She has begun insisting that keepers peel her apple slices during husbandry sessions; no skins for Bai Yun! Her hormones continue to drop toward baseline. And her ultrasounds have revealed: a fetal heartbeat!

Yes, we are very excited to think Bai Yun is carrying what we hope will be her 6th cub. We are patiently waiting and crossing our fingers that she will carry this cub to term. I know you will be crossing your fingers with us!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous update, Panda Update: Seeking Seclusion.


Panda Update: Seeking Seclusion

Only time will tell if Bai Yun is indeed pregnant.

Bai Yun continues to demonstrate appropriate behavior for a pregnant (or pseudo-pregnant) female. One particular behavior, known as “seeking seclusion,” has led to a change in her access this week.

Until recently, Bai Yun was given free run of the behind-the-scenes area near her bedroom, including her sun room, garden room, tunnels and off-exhibit classroom. However, as her potential pregnancy wears on, she is more inclined to stay close to home, and doesn’t seem to like sleeping out on the climbing structure in the classroom anymore. She prefers tucked-away places, like the garden room platform or the den. As a result, we have shut the door on the classroom exhibit. It won’t open again until she demonstrates more interest in stretching her legs after the influence of her pregnancy hormones have worn off.

Seeking seclusion seems a smart move for a panda mother-to-be. Panda cubs are fragile, helpless and totally dependent upon their mothers for meeting all of their needs. The work involved in the constant care and nurturing of the panda neonate requires all of mother bear’s attention, and distractions in the area come at a cost to the mother and cub. If she is focused on external disturbances, mother bear has that much less attention to give to the activities inside her den. Tucking into a quiet, secluded space allows the female to focus on what is important: care of the cub, and her own rest and recovery.

As the days fly by, we can expect Bai Yun to continue to narrow her focus from the surrounding areas to the den. If she is indeed pregnant rather than pseudo-pregnant, we should see her spend most of the day in the den starting a few days before a birth. Currently, she is visiting the den 3-5 times each day for periods of up to 30 min at a time, but the majority of her day is spent in the garden room or bedroom.

We’ll keep you posted as to her progress.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Pregnancy Watch in Full Force.


Panda Pregnancy Watch in Full Force

Bai Yun has been sequestered behind the scenes at Panda Trek for some time now in order to provide her the solitude and environment most conducive to a successful pregnancy and cub-rearing experience. Surely many of you are wondering: is Bai Yun showing any signs of pregnancy? Until about a week ago, the answer was “no.” During most of the time since breeding in spring, she has been her normal, hungry, and active self.

We have been tracking many behavioral and physiological parameters that could give us a clue as to her pregnancy status, one of which is her appetite for bamboo. A decline in bamboo feeding is one of the first reliable behavioral indicators that something is happening with Bai Yun. When we see that she has begun leaving the leafy greens behind at a meal, we know that we are about three to four weeks from a potential birthing window.

Guess what? She started falling of her bamboo feeding late last week.

But hold on. Bamboo feeding generally gives us a broad idea of a birthing window, but it does not actually tell us if she is pregnant. Pseudopregnant females also experience similar changes in feeding patterns. So while we might have a picture of when a birth might occur, we cannot say for sure that a cub is on the way.

Bai Yun has been sitting for regular ultrasounds and thermo-imaging procedures, and we are collecting urine for hormone assays as well. I can tell you that her hormone profile is in full swing, and the ultrasounds have shown some positive changes indicating the hormones are having the desired effect on Bai Yun’s uterus. But again, all of this is consistent with pseudopregnant females as well.

As a result of these changes, we have given her access to her birthing den. In it, she has begun building her nest with bits of bamboo. She occasionally takes short naps in the den. She is showing us more positive pregnancy—and pseudopregnancy—behavior.

And so we wait. The days ahead will be telling. If we are able to visualize a fetus via ultrasound, we will know this is a true pregnancy. Keep your fingers crossed!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, The Bears Thank You.