Conservation

Conservation

8

Condor Cam Chick Needs Name

Name the Condor ChickHatched on April 29, a small condor chick emerged into the world observed closely by animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Adding to the more than 180 condors hatched at the Safari Park since the breeding program began in 1982, the little chick was placed with adult condors Sulu and Towich so they could raise it to adulthood. Its growth has been watched by thousands of people through a live Condor Cam placed in the nest box. Now animal care staff are asking these interested watchers to help choose a name for the young female bird.

Viewers can go online at http://bit.ly/condorname to vote for one of five suggested names. In keeping with the tradition of the condor program, the names have been selected from the Kumeyaay language. The name receiving the most votes will be used for the chick for the rest of its life. Voting closes at end of day on July 20.

“California condors are an important native species in the western United States and hold a special place not only in the ecosystem but in the culture of the people native to this area,” said Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “By giving condors names from the Kumeyaay language, we hope to honor the role of condors in human culture throughout history.”

At more than 2 months of age, the condor chick is covered with fluffy, gray feathers and is still closely cared for by its foster parents. The young bird will continue to grow and mature over the next couple of months until its flight feathers grow in and it is ready to leave the nest. Animal care staff at the Safari Park hope that the chick will be able to take its place among the wild populations that have been released in California, Arizona and Mexico.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

2

Not So Blue: Blue Mountain Koalas

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit:  John Eggenhuizen

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit: John Eggenhuizen

For the past few years my research with koalas in Australia has expanded to focus on koalas living in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). These regions are south of Queensland, where St. Bees Island is located, and are at the middle to lower portion of the koalas’ home range. We are studying koalas in these parts to further our knowledge of this species and to really start comparing them across their entire habitat. Their entire home range is about 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), and with every new project and section that we venture into we get more data on the interesting lives of koalas.

This past November I had the pleasure of heading off to Australia again to meet with colleagues studying koalas in the wild and to see one of these new locations for our koala research, the Blue Mountains in NSW. The Blue Mountains are a World Heritage Site and historically were home to abundant koala populations prior to the fur trade in the early 1900s. Today, koalas in this region are harder to find but may be a significant and genetically valuable population (and, no, the koalas are not blue!). The rough terrain and sweeping vistas that make this area a wonder to behold also make it difficult to track koalas in traditional ways.

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

In order to get in and find koalas, we are developing less traditional methods to track them. I went out to the area with Dr. Kellie Leigh of Science for Wildlife Inc so that we could assess the area and see where there would be potential spots for koala research. We didn’t see koalas while I was there, but what we did see were some signs of koalas, like claw marks on trees. On the heels of our trip there was a koala count: they have an app for that—Great Koala Count! This citizen science survey gives locals and visitors alike, in areas such as the Blue Mountains, the ability to record the presence of koalas. Some very interesting results came in with sightings of koalas in areas where koalas were thought to no longer be found. These sightings have helped Dr. Leigh narrow her search of where to begin in this vast koala habitat.

With my collaboration with Dr. Leigh, we hope to use all our knowledge of koalas’ behaviors as well as their scent to start training a koala-tracking dog to further our efforts to find these potentially elusive koalas in the Blue Mountains. This will take the help of our San Diego Zoo colony of koalas, as we are hoping to use their chemical profiles to facilitate the choice scents in order to train this dog to assist researchers in the Blue Mountains. Once we find koalas, they can be fitted with satellite GPS collars so the fieldwork that Dr. Bill Ellis and his team have done on St. Bees and continue to do in the Brisbane Valley area can be expanded. Through this research we are able to further our commitment to ensuring that koalas are around in their natural habitat for everyone to experience for generations to come.

Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, A Koala Career.

4

Condor Chick Fostering: First Exam

Boy or girl? We'll find out soon!

Boy or girl? We’ll find out soon!

On Thursday, June 12, 2014, the California condor chick you’ve been watching on Condor Cam received its first health exam. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh the chick.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the foster parents (father Towich and mother Sulu) don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen, used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Towich and Sulu are very comfortable entering the shift pen for every meal. We shifted Towich into the pen and kept him there until after the exam. From his shift pen, he cannot see the nest area, so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Sulu was not shifted but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Sulu out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 45-day-old chick had ever seen a person and was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinarian staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample was sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if it is male or female from this sample. Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered and a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. The veterinarian did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.

While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took about 10 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Sulu was allowed to approach and check on her baby. The chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.

For several minutes, the chick showed a defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Sulu slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Sulu. With everyone appearing calmer, Towich was let out of his shift pen. About five minutes after that, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and to perch in the adjoining roost area.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection revealed that the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs, and wings were solid, and its vitality was very strong. The chick weighed 6.8 pounds (3.10 kilograms) and was about the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days.

3

Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

At a little over 1 month of age, our California condor chick should weigh around 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms) (see previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month). The foster parents, Towich and Sulu, have started leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it’s raining, the parents may brood overnight until the weather improves. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick. Some field biologists have even seen wild condor parents chasing black bears away from the nest area!

Up until now, the chick has been scooting around the nest on its tarsal joints—we call it the tarsal crawl. It’s not uncommon, at this age, to see the chick standing all the way up on its feet, teetering around the nest, holding its wings out for balance. As its legs get sturdier, the chick may even approach the parent, begging for food. The wing-begging behavior we’ve been seeing gets more pronounced: lots of wing-flapping, head-bobbing, and trying to position itself in front of the parent.

It is possible that the parents, who are offering larger quantities of food per feeding session, might be providing a small amount of fur/hair in the chick’s diet. (Part of the adults’ diet includes mammals, like rats and rabbits.) Condors can digest just about every part of the animals they eat, except for fur. This fur accumulates in the digestive tract and is eventually regurgitated as waste. We refer to this as casting. A condor’s cast is composed of predominantly fur, whereas a cast from an owl has fur and bones; owls can’t digest bones, but condors can. We have seen condor chicks cast hair pellets as young as three weeks of age. When the chick casts, it throws its head forward several times, mouth open, until the pellet is ejected from its mouth. It can look like the chick is in trouble, but it is perfectly normal, and good for the chick.

At 45 days of age, or around June 12, the chick will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure it is healthy and to determine if the chick is male or female. Also, during the exam, we will weigh the chick—it should weigh between 7.7 and 8.8 pounds (3.5 and 4 kilograms)—and inject a transponder chip as a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat. Most importantly, this exam allows us to administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, a disease that originated in Africa and was accidently introduced to North America by humans. North American wildlife, including condors, usually doesn’t have a natural immune response to West Nile virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that the chick will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for it. We try to be quick (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep the chick covered with a towel to reduce its exposure to humans and to provide it a bit of security. Towich and Sulu are usually away from the nest when we perform the procedure, to keep them as calm as possible as well. We don’t want the chick to become accustomed to or feel reassured by our presence; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico.

The chick will look very large at this age compared to how big it was at hatch, but remember that it is still less than half of its adult weight. There is much more growth and fun to come on Condor Cam!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

2

Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month

The condor chick is staying cool today!

The condor chick is staying cool today!

At two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! (See previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1) Our Condor Cam chick is getting bigger, weighing between 17 and 42 ounces (500 and 1,200 grams), and can often be seen poking its head out from under a parent’s wings. Towich and Sulu might be spending less time sitting on their foster chick, weather permitting, leaving it unattended for longer periods of time, possibly 30 minutes or so. Never fear! They are nearby, often just out of the camera’s view, just a few feet away.

It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age, as well. Sulu or Towich stand a little to the side of the chick now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop may be visible as a bald patch of skin when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing-begging; the chick is begging for food, flapping one or both of its stubby little wings and bobbing its head excitedly. This behavior can persist until after the chick fledges, or leaves its nest, at four to five months.

The chick hatched wearing a fluffy coat of white down feathers. The main function of down is insulation; it can either keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. It and the parents are frequently grooming the feathers to make sure they are working the way they should be. These dark feathers also help the chick blend in with the substrate and the nest cave walls, since Towich and Sulu are not covering the chick as much as they were.

You may have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food will dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! Anyone who has seen the adult condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo can attest to the condors’ ability to keep clean after a messy meal. Also, the presence of flies in the nest is nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that condors are carnivores, feed their chicks via regurgitation, and nest in cavities (caves, crevices, etc.) that are often sheltered from the wind. All of these components add up to a very comfortable environment for flies as well as condors. Yet condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!

As of this writing, our Condor Cam chick is a little over two weeks old. At three weeks of age, it can start to thermo-regulate, or control its own body temperature. This is when its devoted foster parents can start leaving the chick on its own during the day. Depending on the ambient temperature, the chick may be seen shivering or panting in an effort to warm or cool itself. Also, on warm days, the chick may inflate the air sacs in its chin and neck to cool down. Air sac inflation can also occur after a particularly filling meal. Often, Sulu or Towich may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

The chick is more mobile, scooting around the nest on its haunches, or tarsal joints. We refer to this as a tarsal crawl. It’s not quite standing up on its feet, but it can move about, following the parents and investigating different parts of the nest. You may see the chick start to gather items (feather, scraps of old food) from around the nest and move them to one corner. The chick likes to sit or sleep on this pile and play with the different items. These feathers and old food scraps are often brought to the nest by the parents. Birds replace their feathers molting, similar to when mammals shed their hair/fur. We don’t know if the parents are bringing these items to the nest specifically for the chick or if it’s just happenstance, but the chick loves to investigate and play with them!

As the parents start leaving the chick alone for longer periods of time, it will be easier to watch the chick when it sleeps. Just like all growing youngsters, condor chicks sleep A LOT. With longer legs and gawky bodies, they often are sprawled out, wings askew, in odd positions when they sleep. Do not worry! The chick is perfectly fine.

At approximately 1 month of age, the chick should weigh around 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather turns cool or it’s raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick.

Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

158

Pathologist’s Report on Gao Gao’s Tumor

On the left is the paraffin wax block containing the processed tumor tissue, which is then cut into thin slices (about the width of a human hair) by our histotechnologist. These thin sections are then stained by several different methods to allow microscopic evaluation of the cells in the tumor.

On the left is the wax block with the processed tumor tissue, which is then cut into thin slices (about the width of a human hair). These thin sections are then stained by different methods to allow microscopic evaluation of the cells in the tumor.

As most of you know, giant panda Gao Gao had surgery May 6, 2014, to remove his right testicle after a tumor was discovered by our veterinary staff (see Surgery for Gao Gao). Since that time, we have received a lot of questions about how Gao Gao’s diagnosis was made and what the findings mean for his long-term prognosis. In this blog I’ll tell you about our analysis of the tumor in the Wildlife Disease Laboratories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and what we know about the tumor in giant pandas and other animals.

After we received Gao Gao’s testicle in the laboratory, parts of the tumor were processed and stained for examination under a microscope. From this, the veterinary pathologists gathered clues from the arrangement and distribution of tumor cells, features of individual tumor cells, and the frequency of tumor cell division and invasion into adjacent normal tissues.

This photomicrograph (taken through a microscope) shows the tumor on the right-hand side compressing the normal testicular tissue on the left.

This photomicrograph (taken through a microscope) shows the tumor on the right-hand side compressing the normal testicular tissue on the left.

We also used a specialized technique, immunohistochemistry, to determine if the tumor was making substances characteristic of one particular cell type or another. All of this information was synthesized to determine the tumor cell type and if the tumor was completely removed.

In Gao Gao’s case, the evidence supports a diagnosis of seminoma, which is a tumor arising from the germ or sperm-producing cells. In addition, there was no evidence in the surgically removed tissues of tumor spread beyond the testicle. In domestic animals, seminomas are common in older dogs, and they are usually completely cured by surgery. However, in other species such as humans, a higher percentage of seminomas will metastasize (spread) to other organs without additional treatment such as chemotherapy.

This high magnification photomicrograph shows a single tumor cell undergoing mitosis (cell division), a characteristic that indicates tumor growth. The dark purple material at the center of the cell is the nucleus beginning to divide.

This high magnification photomicrograph shows a single tumor cell undergoing mitosis (cell division), a characteristic that indicates tumor growth. The dark purple material at the center of the cell is the nucleus beginning to divide.

So what does this mean for Gao Gao? The answer is that we can’t tell for certain if his tumor has been cured by surgery or if there is a small chance that it could reoccur at a later time. This is a common problem for pathologists who work with endangered animals, because very few tumors will ever be observed in these species, whereas it is easy to gather information on tumor behavior in dogs and humans where thousands of cases can be studied over time.

Despite this uncertainty, we are very hopeful that Gao Gao’s tumor will behave more like a seminoma in dogs. In 1997, a seminoma was found in 26-year-old giant panda Hsing Hsing, from the National Zoo, and treated by surgical removal. Hsing Hsing died two years later from kidney disease, and there was no evidence of any remaining tumor at his necropsy. We have had an opportunity to compare the microscopic sections of Hsing Hsing’s tumor with the samples from Gao Gao, and they are very similar.

Allan Pessier, D.V.M., Diplomate, A.C.V.P., is a senior scientist (veterinary pathologist) for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, The Last Ones?

Update May 23, 2014: Gao Gao seems to be enjoying his keepers’ attention in his bedroom suite as he continues his recovery. He has even been soliciting neck scratches from them.

4

Climate Change: Polar bears, Sea Ice, and Beyond

Kalluk enjoys last year's snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Kalluk enjoys last year’s snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Climate change is back in the news and, unfortunately, the news has not been good. A number of recent reports indicate that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. At over 400 parts per million, we have reached a number that would have seemed unimaginable just decades ago. But while the scale of this problem is immense, the real power for changing the current trend is within each of us. The choices we make—what we buy, how we spend our time—can lead to dramatic differences in our carbon footprint. It is possible to reverse the current trend if we all commit to changing our daily habits.

There is a vast array of information now available that outlines the many-faceted ways that the changing climate will impact people and ecosystems all over the world. From extreme weather to climate warming, the reach of climate change is broad. And the reason our climate is changing is known: human activities have driven the release of unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that effectively blankets the Earth, increasing the amount of heat that stays in our atmosphere. And while we typically associate carbon dioxide emissions with the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and coal, there are other sources as well that are not as well known. One of the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon is deforestation. Each year, the burning and clearing of tropical forests contributes over 2 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

At the San Diego Zoo, our mission is to connect people to wildlife because that connection can be a powerful force for conservation. I can speak from personal experience as to the power of that connection. Destined for medical school, my career path shifted dramatically because of a chance connection with wildlife. For me, that connection started with the polar bear, a species whose plight has provided some of the defining images associated with climate change, a species whose future we hold in our hands.

As a graduate student, my first field season was spent working out of a remote field camp on the western Hudson Bay, about 15 miles east of Churchill, Manitoba (a.k.a. the Polar Bear Capital of the World). This area, so nicknamed because of the large number of polar bears that congregate there in the fall, was also home to an incredible array of wildlife, including Arctic nesting birds, large herds of caribou, and beluga whales. While polar bears are most numerous and visible during the fall, the bears actually start coming ashore during the summer as the ice on the Bay begins to melt out, and the bears are forced ashore to begin a long fast.

Our field research was primarily done on foot, with miles and miles of walking over the course of the long Arctic summer days, and the possibility of bumping into a polar bear meant that safety measures were taken seriously and practiced regularly. The most basic and important safety measure we had while walking in the field was to scan the horizon with binoculars every few minute, in hopes of spotting any polar bears in the vicinity while they were still a good distance away. On the day I saw my first bear, it was relatively early in the season for polar bears, but the ice had begun to break up on the Bay, a harbinger of polar bears to come. Scan after scan, I saw nothing and continued with my work. And then suddenly, I looked up, and saw a young male bear easily without binoculars, less than 50 feet away. How long had he been following me? Luckily, I was able to make my way safely back to camp. And while it was truly scary to see a bear so close, it was also an event that left an enormous impression on me. It initiated my love of the species and cemented my passion for conserving wildlife and wild places.

Around that same time (the mid-1990s), biologists studying polar bears in the Canadian Arctic documented changes that were occurring within that population of polar bears. These scientists found that reductions in reproductive parameters were correlated with the warming air temperatures that had been documented between 1950 and 1990 and, most importantly, with an increasingly long period where the Hudson Bay was ice free. Because polar bears are completely dependent upon the sea ice for their survival, the directional trend toward less and less ice was of great concern. Twenty years later, I am happy to say that the polar bear is one of the species that I get to study, but saddened to say that the Earth’s CO2 emissions have continued to increase and that the impacts of climate change on polar bears have intensified. No other species better illustrates the impact of climate change on wildlife. Like a real-life version of the game “Break the Ice,” the polar bear’s habitat is disappearing, the ice literally melting at their feet. Their fate is in our hands.

Chinook and Kalluk have been breeding for the past couple of weeks, and we are hopeful, as in years past, that this breeding season will result in the birth of a polar cub in the fall. We will monitor Chinook closely for behavioral and physiological signs of pregnancy and learn as much as we can about the reproductive biology of these amazing animals. Keepers, researchers, and visitors alike have an amazing opportunity to observe our bears in the water and on land at the San Diego Zoo, and in so doing, learn about climate change and the impact that this human-driven change is having on wild polar bears and the Arctic sea ice environment. Polar bears exemplify the role of “conservation ambassadors,” and it is hard to deny the impressive nature of their strength, intelligence, and adaptations to life on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Climate change may sound like old news to some. Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes were once a common sight in the popular press, but like most news stories, many people have moved on. Unfortunately, climate change has not gone away, and the negative impacts of sea-ice losses on polar bears continue to eke away at their once-pristine Arctic home. I am hopeful that the reemergence of climate change into the news cycle will invigorate people’s interest in doing their part to reverse the trends in CO2 emissions. I am hopeful also that we all seek those connections to nature and wildlife that are so important for engaging us in conservation issues. We can all make a difference.

For those who love our polar bears, and for those who are interested in learning more about how climate change is impacting the species’ Arctic sea ice habitat, I recommend visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website. This page provides daily updates on sea ice conditions in the polar regions, as well as year by year interactive graphics of the dynamic changes in sea ice extent.

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Our Panda Conservation Program.

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Our Panda Conservation Program

Bai Yun has been a wonderful ambassador for pandas.

Bai Yun has been a wonderful ambassador for pandas.

When Bai Yun arrived at the San Diego Zoo back in November 1996, we all had great expectations for the San Diego Zoo’s panda conservation program. And we knew that these expectations rested squarely on Bai Yun’s beautiful black-and-white shoulders. In the years since, our panda conservation program has grown and has achieved a number of notable successes.

At the center of it all is Bai Yun. Of course, Gao Gao, too, has been extremely important to the success of our breeding program at the San Diego Zoo. Not all male pandas show appropriate breeding behavior, so Gao Gao’s arrival in San Diego in 2003 enabled us to fulfill our goal of studying giant panda reproduction, from breeding to maternal care. However, Bai Yun’s importance to our conservation program goes beyond her successes as a mother, as she has truly exemplified the role of conservation ambassador. Engaging and fascinating the public for the last 18 years, she is the quintessential giant panda, emblematic of the inherent beauty and value of wildlife.

Bai Yun will be 23 years old in September. For those of us who have watched her over the years, we are amazed at her consistent good health, youthful behavior, and appearance. However, this year, her estrous behavior has not been what it has been in the past. Can Bai Yun be heading toward reproductive senescence? Heading into her 23rd year, the answer, most likely, is yes; however, we won’t know for sure until next spring. As of this writing, Bai Yun has not shown more than a minimal level of the behavioral changes that are typically associated with estrus. Back in March, we saw a bit of scent marking and some water walking, behaviors that normally indicate that estrus is coming. However, the expression of these behaviors did not escalate, and soon after they began, they ceased. Since then, Bai Yun has been “quiet.” While estrus can occur into June, the vast majority of breeding, including for our bears here, occurs in March and April,

When Bai Yun gave birth to Xiao Liwu in 2012, it was widely noted that she was the second-oldest giant panda to give birth. While an impressive statistic, that notable milestone provided us with valuable information regarding the finite nature of a female’s biological capacity to produce offspring. Male giant pandas, like other male mammals, can theoretically sire offspring later in life, though for wild pandas, other factors may get in the way of this, including competition with other males for breeding access to females and choosy females that may not be interested.

Bai Yun has given birth to 6 cubs over the past 15 years. While some other females have given birth to 10 or more cubs, the number of litters a female has is typically no more than 6 or 7. For example, between 2004 and 2013, Bai Yun’s first daughter, Hua Mei, has had 10 cubs from 7 litters. While Hua Mei is 8 years younger than Bai Yun, it will be interesting to see whether or not she has more cubs in the coming years. These contrasting mother-daughter patterns are at the heart of one of our research questions: What are the limits of reproductive output in the species?

In some panda breeding facilities, cubs are weaned earlier in order to promote successive annual breeding opportunities. In other facilities, cubs are weaned at about 18 months, mimicking what we believe is the more natural timing of weaning. In these cases, females will only be able to breed every two years. Given this, we might expect to see females that breed every year producing 15 litters over their reproductive lives. However, this does not appear to be the case.

Understanding what governs female reproductive output in giant pandas has implications for both captive breeding and conservation of wild giant pandas, and we are currently analyzing a fairly large volume of data to address this question. Is reproductive output governed exclusively by chronological age? Or is it governed in part by health and vigor? And how does variation in inter-birth-interval (the time between successive pregnancies) influence a female’s lifetime reproductive output? We hope to have some answers to these questions in the coming months.

I have to admit that I never get tired of watching our giant pandas here at the San Diego Zoo. While the excitement of a new cub is undeniable, I know that I will enjoy watching Bai Yun and Gao Gao relax this summer, while young Xiao Liwu explores and plays, enjoying his first summer as a solo panda. Our panda family exemplifying their roles as ambassadors for conservation!

Panda Yun Zi in China.

Update on panda Gao Gao, May 11, 2014: Thank you for all the Gao Gao well wishes! He is doing well post surgery and is enjoying spending time in his back bedrooms. There he is catered to by his keepers 3 to 4 times a day, and he lets them know when he wants back scratches. Gao does have access daily to an off-view exhibit that has a panda camera in it, although he seems to prefer to enjoy the air-conditioned bedrooms, his black sleeping tub, and his keepers’ attention.

1

Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1

Towich dutifully sits tight.

Towich dutifully sits tight.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s newest California condor chick hatched on April 29, 2014, weighing around 6 ounces or 180 grams (see post Fostering Condor Chicks). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward, the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded—or sat on—by the parents. We often call this sitting tight. The parents are providing protection and warmth, especially while the newly hatched chick is drying off. With the chick being weak and wobbly, it often is hard to feed, but that is okay. The chick is getting nutrients from the yolk sac that it absorbed into its belly just before hatching.

After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents then start providing food. They eat food that we offer out in the flight pen and then bring it to the chick in their crop (a bulge in their esophagus where they can store up to 3 pounds of food). The food is regurgitated for the chick, providing a warm and nutritious meal. Mmmmmmm! The diet we provide varies, depending on the day, but it can include rabbits, rats, trout, beef spleen, and ground meat. While the chick is very young, it is often difficult to witness a feeding on Condor Cam, since the parents are standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see the parents slightly bobbing their heads while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crops are only about the size of a lima bean.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Both the male and female California condor provide care for the chick. This drive is very strong, and it’s not uncommon to see the parents vying for time with the chick, especially immediately after hatching. This happens in the form of leaning into each other, pushing one’s way onto the chick; scooping the chick from one parent to the other; or nipping at neck skin or tugging at feathers to get the other parent to move. Usually, one parent acts more dominantly and controls the interactions a little more than the other parent. This time, father Towich took this dominant role. Other years, we’ve seen Sulu take this role. We interpret this periodic shift in dominance, and the other bird’s acceptance of this shift, as a very good trait in a condor pair. As time passes after hatch, they settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.

Sometimes Condor Cam viewers are concerned about the number of times that the chick gets stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by the parents. Usually, it’s just a minor misstep, and the baby lets the parent know with a brief vocalization. Condors are no different or no more fragile. They are very hearty little chicks!

As young as 4 days of age, we have seen chicks sifting through the sand in the nest, picking up items on their own. We’ve even seen chicks swallowing small pieces of their eggshell for dietary calcium.

At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life, it weighs around 10.5 ounces (300 grams). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and we can witness social interactions with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. Every once in a while, you may see the chick quivering, almost like it has the hiccups. It is actually vocalizing. Condors don’t have a true voice box or syrinx like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or when out from under the parents for too long.

The next few weeks of development are very exciting, not just for the condor family but for any of us watching on the Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

18

On the Palm Oil Path: A Journey to Sustainability

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha's wild brethren.

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha’s wild brethren.

When you watch the San Diego Zoo’s orangutans brachiating from branch to branch, it’s easy to picture the movement of wild apes through the canopy of those big trees in Borneo and Sumatra. Watching our sun bear Marcella sleep high in her climbing structure, you can envision a wild sun bear resting up in the canopy close to the fruit of a monstrous tree. There are a number of species that depend on the lush forests of tropical Southeast Asia, and these species are now at risk due to rampant deforestation and loss of habitat. As mentioned in a previous post, The Palm Oil Conservation Crisis, one of the major drivers of that deforestation is unsustainable palm oil cultivation.

The palm oil conservation crisis is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved overnight. However, San Diego Zoo Global has waded into the issue and hopes to contribute to a solution that can preserve forests and the wildlife that depends on them. Our first step was to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization that has produced a series of criteria aimed at altering the palm oil supply chain to produce a sustainable crop. (See press release Three US Zoos Take Leadership Role in Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Practices.) The goal of the RSPO is to make certified sustainable palm oil the norm, thus ending the unsustainable practices that endanger forests. The RSPO is a young organization, and though it has made great strides in its 10 years, there is still a long way to go toward ensuring that palm oil is deforestation-free.

This is the reason North American zoos and aquariums are stepping up to address this issue, too. As conservation entities, we want to ensure a wild future for the species many of our guests see at our facilities. I just returned from the first Sustainable Palm Oil Symposium, hosted by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Cheyenne Mountain was the first North American zoo to join the RSPO, and in hosting this symposium they helped to facilitate a dialogue among concerned zoos about what we can do, collectively and as individual institutions. We got an on-the-ground perspective from attending NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that work in Malaysia and Indonesia, and this allowed us to have a better understanding of what parts of the industry are likely to be most responsive to our efforts. It was really inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded folks who are as passionate about the palm oil conservation crisis as we are. Zoos around the world are raising awareness of the problem and are trying to encourage the transformation of the palm oil industry to sustainability. At the symposium, we realized that we might wield a powerful voice if we unite in our efforts.

That is very much our goal now. I hope to share with you some of our efforts and accomplishments over the next several months. In the meantime, you can help by supporting the RSPO’s vision to transform the palm oil industry. Think of this transformation as a journey toward sustainability. Zoos, corporations, and even the RSPO are on a journey, each of us in a different place, but the goal is clear. San Diego Zoo Global supports those companies that are making progress toward a sustainable palm oil industry. We encourage you to support the RSPO and those RSPO-member companies that are taking steps along their journey to sustainability, too.

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