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54

Weaning Xiao Liwu

Xiao Liwu enjoys a bamboo lunch in his expanded habitat.

Xiao Liwu enjoys a bamboo lunch in his expanded habitat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaning Panda Cubs

Weaning Zhen Zhen: And So It Begins

A Big Step Forward

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

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

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

712

Xiao Liwu: A Gentle Soul

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

I spoke with long-time panda keeper Kathy Hawk to get an update on our youngest panda, Xiao Liwu, who is now one year old. She described him as a gentle soul—at least so far! “He’s different from his siblings. He’s very mellow around us.” Keepers are still able to enter the exhibit when he is in there, and he doesn’t treat them like a toy to play with or a tree to try to climb like our previous cubs have done.

Kathy explained that the “light bulb” has gone off in his head, and Xiao Liwu now seems to understand that a delicious honey water treat is his reward if he comes when keepers call him. As such, “Mr. Wu” is more consistently starting to shift from his exhibit enclosure to his bedroom when asked. Here’s how it works: a keeper stands at the fence line and calls his name. If Mr. Wu comes over, whether down from the tree or from playing or sleeping, and touches his nose to a target, the keeper clicks a clicker to let him know he did as asked and rewards him with sips of honey water. Kathy said our little man LOVES that honey water! However, Xiao Liwu is “still a baby,” and, although he now understands what is asked of him, he may not always choose to comply! Sound familiar to you parents out there?

Xiao Liwu is nibbling on bamboo a bit but prefers apple slices and folivore biscuits that have been soaked in water for him. At this stage in his life, he does not compete with his mother, Bai Yun, for the biscuits or the bamboo. Mr. Wu still spends a good deal of time up in the trees, as cubs do at this age, and this does not bother keepers or his mother. Kathy has never heard Bai Yun call for him to come down!

Kathy also described that all six panda cubs she has worked with have gone through a stage where they get extra-sensitive to noise and react strongly to sudden, loud sounds by running or walking quickly, or even frothing at the mouth. Perhaps their sense of hearing becomes more acute at this age, and they react to sounds they ignored as toddlers. You may see this now with Mr. Wu, but Kathy wanted to reassure panda fans that this, too, shall pass!

Snow day for all of our pandas will be on Thursday, August 29. Approximately 30,000 pounds of snow will be blown into the exhibits early that morning, and the pandas will be released into the white stuff around 8 a.m. for Panda Cam viewers to enjoy, including some for Gao Gao. The Zoo opens at 9 a.m., and if you’re lucky enough to be here that day, do come and watch the fun!

This special snow day enrichment for our pandas was made possible by generous donors who contributed to the Zoo’s online Animal Care Wish List. There are other items on this month’s Wish List for our pandas, such as composite wood for custom-made toys, perfume, bark logs, and coconuts, starting at just $9. Other Zoo bears have added their wish list requests as well, including snowballs in $10 increments for our polar bears. Check it out!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

75

Reflections on Xiao Liwu

Xiao Liwu enjoyed the "little gifts" that hung from the tree on his birthday.

Xiao Liwu enjoyed the “little gifts” that hung from the tree on his 1st birthday.

For the three years that I’ve been working at the Giant Panda Research Station as a panda narrator, it has been a treat to watch our panda cubs grow. Xiao Liwu is the second panda cub I’ve watched grow up, and with his first birthday just passing I can’t believe how fast he’s grown!

I remember when he was just learning how to climb in the classroom exhibit. Starting very slow but steady, he would slip a few times, just as cubs may do when learning this skill. Then once he tried a couple more times, he got the hang of it. Sooner or later he was climbing to the higher branches in his tree, finding a comfy place to take a nap. Now he’s a pro! He sometimes tries to be quite the daredevil and hang upside down in his tree. Like kids, he LOVES to be a ham.

My favorite quality about Wu is that he’s very inquisitive and observant. He is always watching Bai Yun and is curious about what she does. One afternoon, Wu joined Bai Yun at the front of the exhibit and sat next to her while she was eating. He watched her for a moment, grabbed a piece of bamboo, and tried to copy her. He tried so hard to peel the tough stalk with his teeth just like Mom. Eventually, he gave up and started playing with her ears.

Xiao Liwu is also very smart. He’s doing so well with his training. Whenever I watch him training with his keepers, I’m amazed how quickly he picks up on the behaviors. Wu is learning to walk into his bedroom from the exhibit when the bedroom door opens and to touch his nose on a target. Of course, they MUST have honey water as his treat.

I feel so privileged to watch Mr. Wu learn how to be a bear. I see the joy he brings to our guests, our keepers, and our narrators. I must say, he is my favorite Little Gift.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Adventurer.

This panda cub growth chart shows that Xiao Liwu is about the same size as his sister, Zhen Zhen, just a few days before his first birthday. Click on image to enlarge.

This panda cub growth chart shows that Xiao Liwu is about the same size as his sister, Zhen Zhen, was at the same age. The measurements were taken just a few days before his first birthday. Click on image to enlarge.

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Birthday Plans for Xiao Liwu

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

It’s that time of the year again to order the birthday cake, wrap the presents, and celebrate with the San Diego Zoo—Mr. Wu’s first birthday is on Monday, July 29! This is a milestone for the Zoo, and we are the fortunate ones to celebrate our sixth panda first birthday with this “little gift.”

I placed the order for Mr. Wu’s birthday cake on July 1, as it takes our Forage Team around a month to plan and create their world-famous ice cakes. Our Forage Team folks always have amazing ideas and are very creative with their cakes. I continue to be amazed at what they can do with ice, and so are the bears! I am always tempted to take an early look at the cake, but I never do, as I like to keep it a surprise. The cake is always bigger and better than the year before.

Make sure you join us for Xiao Liwu’s special day and wear your favorite panda-themed clothes or something black, white, and red (we panda keepers will be in red for the occasion). Mr. Wu will have his cake presentation around 8:45 a.m. for special donors and the media, and the Zoo opens at 9 a.m. Make sure you are getting your cameras ready and/or watching Panda Cam!

There will not be snow in the forecast for his birthday, because he is not shifting off exhibit consistently yet, and we do not want to frighten him with the loud snow-blowing machines. There will be snow in the next month or so—we will let you know the exact date once that’s been determined. But be prepared that Mr. Wu might be enjoying his birthday festivities from high in the trees if anything makes him a little nervous. He has also made a Wish List for his birthday that will be posted on July 29. We’ll provide the link at that time.

By the way, Mr. Wu weighs 40 pounds (18 kilograms) now.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Comparing Panda Brothers.

145

Xiao Liwu: Meeting those Milestones

Mother and cub engage in a wrestling session.

Mother and cub engage in a wrestling session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

401

New Digs for Xiao Liwu

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu relax in the off-exhibit garden room.

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu relax in the off-exhibit garden room.

Big changes are happening for our almost eight-month-old panda boy, Xiao Liwu, as we do a panda exhibit swap (it sounds like a dance, doesn’t it?) at the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. Gao Gao was moved from the exhibit in the main viewing area Monday night, and that exhibit was then cub-proofed for Mr. Wu’s arrival this morning. This included a lot of tree trimming, which had  not been needed for his more earth-bound father, Gao Gao!

During this transition time, the cub is learning to negotiate the access tunnel that leads him from his bedroom suite to a brand-new world of delights. This morning he was given access to that exhibit and immediately climbed up the tall pine tree, a typical response for a cub his age. Mother and cub have access to their bedroom in case they want a little retreat now and then for the next few days, so you may or may not see them, depending on their wishes. We regret that this means that some Zoo guests and Panda Cam viewers may not be able to see the youngest panda at all times. We apologize for this inconvenience but know that our panda fans will understand that sometimes our need to care for our pandas takes precedence over making them available for viewing. Soon, however, adoring fans will be able to see little brother in the enclosure next to big brother Yun Zi’s enclosure in the main viewing area all day long.

Gao Gao will move to Mr. Wu’s former haunt, the north/classroom exhibit, later this week. The north exhibit will be open to private tours and education programs only, but Gao can still be seen on Panda Cam. Yun Zi will continue to be in his exhibit with his new artificial tree.

We still have another exhibit renovation to do to Yun Zi’s exhibit, adding more plants and sod. Plus, keepers hope to add a cross log to the Keebler so they can rehang his hammock and have places to attach his swing.

One other change that will be happening has to do with comments sent to all our blogs. Soon, all comments will post automatically–you won’t have to wait for a moderator to approve your comments! We hope this will increase your enjoyment of our blog section and give you a chance to more quickly and easily interact with other panda fans. Please know that due to the increased volume on our many social media channels, we will be unable to respond to all comments or questions. Comments will be monitored and any comment that is deemed inappropriate will be removed. This change will occur later this week and will be noted in the comment box. Enjoy!

Debbie Andreen is a blog moderator (soon to be blog monitor!) and associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

47

It’s Alive! Look Inside Our Giant Pandas’ Favorite Food

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun this morning demonstrating her bamboo-eating skills.

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun this morning demonstrating her bamboo-eating skills.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jennifer Parsons, an associate nutritionist at the San Diego Zoo. Although she manages diets for all of the animals at the Zoo, her specialty is a particular diet for a highly specialized species: bamboo makes up 99 percent of a wild giant panda’s diet.

A wild giant panda may roam the bamboo groves of China all day eating 25 species of bamboo, but not a zoo panda. The San Diego Zoo’s Horticulture Department grows bamboo for the giant pandas in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s parking lot. Every day, the horticulturists harvest the bamboo with chain saws coated in peanut oil, which is edible, unlike grease. After harvesting, they truck it to the Zoo’s panda exhibit, where it’s put in large coolers to wait for panda mealtime.

The keepers feed the giant pandas three times per day. At each feeding the pandas are offered twice the amount of bamboo that they will actually eat. This allows the pandas to selectively “sniff test” the bamboo, as they would in the wild. The pandas spend the entire interval between feedings processing and eating bamboo.

Bamboo is a colonial organism. An entire bamboo grove behaves likes one organism, which presents challenges for the Horticulture Department. Bamboo is actually a type of grass, and it’s the fastest-growing plant on Earth. Bamboo can grow up to 98 inches (249 centimeters) in 24 hours!

Bamboo has a seasonal cycle that determines where the plant’s nutrients are stored. This cycle may drive a giant panda’s preference for the leaves or the culm, the woody central stalk of the plant. In the winter and spring, when temperate bamboo produces shoots, nutrients are stored in the culm, so giant pandas favor this protein-packed stalk. When bamboo grows new leaves in the summer and fall, photosynthesis stores sugar and protein in the leaves; therefore, the giant pandas prefer the nutrient-rich leaves.

In the wild, pandas only eat temperate bamboo, so a wild giant panda’s home range is larger in the winter, giving the panda access to more food. But zoo pandas cannot seasonally change their territories, so the keepers feed both tropical and temperate bamboo species to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo. These bamboo species have opposite reproductive cycles, so the pandas can eat leaves and culm year-round. Strangely, however, both adult giant pandas at the Zoo, Gao Gao and his mate Bai Yun, prefer to eat the hard culm year-round instead of the easily digestible leaves. Pandas are a puzzle!

Pandas aren’t the only ones that use bamboo. In the bamboo forests of China (and at the San Diego Zoo) red pandas, takins, and golden monkeys also eat bamboo. Asian cultures use bamboo for food, medicine, construction, clothing, paper, musical instruments, bicycles, and fishing rods. Bamboo is also being used as a green resource all over the world. For example, the building housing the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is built from sustainable bamboo.

Take a shoot out of a giant panda’s book and buy environmentally friendly bamboo products. And be sure to say hello to giant pandas Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and juvenile Xiao Liwu at the San Diego Zoo or on Panda Cam.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Northern White Rhinos in Peril.

32

How to Take a Panda’s Blood Pressure: 8 Easy Steps

Liz offer Xiao Liwu a treat while his blood pressure is taken.

Liz offer Xiao Liwu a treat while his blood pressure is taken.

You may recall that in early June, keepers began training giant panda Xiao Liwu to have his blood pressure taken (see post Xiao Liwu: Star Student!). “Mr. Wu” learned to put his forelimb (arm) in the metal sleeve and lightly grab the bar at the end of that sleeve with his claws the first day of training. That was Step 1. But what were the next steps? Keeper Liz Simmons filled me in.

Step 2: Panda to keep arm in metal sleeve for increased lengths of time.

This was easy, says Liz. As long as Mr. Wu was getting rewarded for calmly staying in one spot with his arm in the metal sleeve, he was happy to sit there all day! Squirts of honey water were the big ticket items for our boy, but he was (and still is) also willing to do this step for pieces of apple, carrot, sweet potato, and biscuits (soaked, not dry).

Step 3: Get panda used to having arm touched.

Talk about a fun task! Keepers touched, poked, and rubbed Xiao Liwu’s arm while it was in the sleeve. He, of course, had been touched a lot when he was small, but now that he’s such a big bear (almost 100 pounds), keepers might give his ears or head a scratch through the metal mesh but don’t usually touch his arms. He had to get comfortable with them touching his arm. No problem!

Step 4: Wrap blood pressure cuff around panda’s arm.

We use the same type of blood pressure cuff used for humans, but in Mr. Wu’s case, a child-size one. This step involved pulling apart the Velcro strips and attaching the cuff to our two-ear-old bear’s arm so he could get used to the feel of the cuff. YIKES—Wu did NOT like the sound of the Velco ripping apart! He had never heard that sound before.

Step 5: Get panda used to sound of Velcro ripping.

Liz ripped the Velcro in Xiao Liwu’s vicinity every chance she got to get him used to this new sound. She even called him over to her while he was on exhibit and ripped that Velcro. It didn’t take long for Mr. Wu to become desensitized to the sound of Velcro. (Now, when I hear Velcro ripping, I’ll always think of our panda boy!)

Step 6: Wrap blood pressure cuff around panda’s arm (again)

With Velcro issues a thing of the past, keepers could now proceed to wrap the cuff on his arm. No problem this time!

Step 7: Get panda used to having his arm squeezed.

Once the cuff was in place, a keeper squeezed her hand around the cuff to simulate the feel of a blood pressure squeeze. No problem there!

Step 8: Hook up cuff to blood pressure machine, place cuff on panda, and take a reading.

On November 3, 2014, Xiao Liwu had his first blood pressure reading. Actually, he was so comfortable and calm during the procedure that keepers took three readings. Mr. Wu has passed!

For now, these blood pressure readings will provide a baseline for our medical team. They will be done every week or so, as time allows. Xiao Liwu is happy to cooperate. Liz says he “really like to work!”

Next up for our star student? Blood-draw training.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Pandas On and Off.

44

Pandas On and Off

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Changes are happening at the San Diego Zoo, and all for the better, of course! Ground was broken for our new Asian leopard habitat, to be located next to Panda Trek in our Panda Canyon (see NEWS blog dated October 9). With the preparation and construction of this wonderful new home for our snow leopards and Amur leopards comes noise. We try to keep noise to a minimum in our giant panda area.

Bai Yun seems to take almost all construction noise in stride—she’s had years of experience at the Zoo! Her son Xiao Liwu has been the least bothered by noise of all six cubs Bai Yun has raised. Still, as construction progresses, panda keepers may take “Mr. Wu” off exhibit from time to time or move him to the north yard if they find he is bothered by the noise. He could still be seen by our Panda Cam viewers but not by Zoo guests. Gao Gao will continue to remain off exhibit during this time.

Where there's 'boo, there's bliss!

Where there’s ‘boo, there’s bliss!

But the good news is that a television monitor tuned to Panda Cam has been installed in our main gift shop! If you come to the Zoo, you can check on Panda Cam to see who is visible before making your way down to Panda Trek. And our wonderful volunteer Panda Cam operators will always strive to give you the best possible view of one of our pandas.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Well, Chinook?

139

Pandas Keep Cool

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

It’s been warm in San Diego lately, and some of you may be wondering how our giant pandas are kept comfy. Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk filled me in on the hot-weather protocol used in the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek.

There are thermometers in shaded areas of each panda enclosure, and if the temperature reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius), the pandas are given access to their air-conditioned bedrooms. The panda station has its own ice-making machine, so keepers can fill tubs with ice to make ice beds for some cool lounging, or they can make an ice-cube pile for flopping on (the pandas, not the keepers!). Sometimes food treats are added to the ice to encourage use.

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

You may have seen the mist fans in each yard. These fans mix water and air to blow a cooling mist into the enclosure. Kathy said the pandas really seem to enjoy the shrouded mist the fans create. Ice treats or popsicles made with applesauce or other panda delights are offered as both enrichment and as another way to keep cool. And, of course, each enclosure has a pool to soak in.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Kathy emphasized that anytime there is high humidity, no matter the actual temperature, the pandas are pulled off exhibit. Keepers are pro-active about avoiding any signs of early heat stress with these precious bears, and all three are closely monitored.

Thank you, panda keepers, for always taking such good care of these black-and-white bears. Your work is much appreciated!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Fishing Cats: It Takes Two.