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Bai Yun

119

First Snow Day for Panda Cub!

Yun Zi was 2 when he saw his first snow.Tuesday, March 19, starting at 7 a.m., we are preparing for snow in the panda exhibits. We are very excited and thankful to all the panda fans who donated money to give this wonderful enrichment to our giant pandas. I am sure we will see you at 9 a.m. sharp in person or starting around 8 a.m. on the Panda Cam!

It’s a bit of a process to actually make snow and put it in the exhibits. We have a truck that comes in and is specially designed to turn large ice blocks into snow. There are large hoses that we can hold and deliver (spray) snow into the entire panda exhibit. Snow will be blown into Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu’s north exhibit and into Gao Gao’s exhibit in the main viewing area.

Sadly, Yun Zi’s new tree will not be done in time (due to a couple of days of rain), and he will stay housed next to Bai Yun and Mr. Wu for a few more days. But don’t fret! Yun Zi will be getting snow, too, and we will make sure he has a mound of it to play in.

We are all excited to see how brave Mr. Wu is and what his first reaction will be when he puts his paws in it. Hopefully, it will be a wonderful play day for both bears and guests!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Here’s Zhen Zhen when she saw her first snow:

473

My Moment With Our Black and White Celebrity!

It finally happened, I was able to help with a cub exam! I have been waiting for this moment since my first look at the cub during my night watch shift. As we began setting up for the exam, my excitement quickly turned to nervousness, and my mind raced. There were cameras, researchers, veterinarians, nutritionists, fellow keepers and supervisors, and it was up to me to keep our celebrity calm!  

Then it was time: Bai Yun shifted out to her breakfast, and she was calm. Now was my chance to pick up the cub, weigh him, and bring him out for his exam. I picked him up and placed him on his blanket, along with several bamboo leaves that I had to clean off of him so he would be camera ready. I gently placed him on the scale; he weighed 7.26 pounds (3.29 kilograms)! Now out to the cameras, the veterinarian, and the nutritionist for his exam. He did so well! He made a few vocalizations here and there, and he is getting much more mobile–he even crawled–but the veterinarian and nutritionist were able to conduct a thorough exam. Success!

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Night Watch: Mission Accepted.

61

Sensitive Subjects are My Job

Hua Mei was the happy result of artificial insemination.

Have you ever been to a San Diego Zoo Safari Park and had the Africa Tram driver warn parents of little ones that it is that time of year when the animals are breeding and their kids might have some questions about what they saw after the ride? This usually gets adults chuckling, and maybe even leads to a few “birds-and-the-bees conversations.” Well, imagine your job is to help in the reproduction of endangered species and that every person you meet eventually asks, “So, what you do for a living?” As a laboratory researcher in the Reproductive Physiology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I’ve learned to say, “Think of us as a fertility clinic for animals.” Here are a few examples I use to explain this idea:

Artificial insemination
One of our lab’s greatest achievements was the birth of Hua Mei, the first panda cub to be born at the San Diego Zoo. While her birth was due to a large-scale collaboration of many people from all over the Zoo, including scientists, curators, veterinarians, and keepers, our greatest contribution was the insemination. It became clear that male panda Shi Shi was not going to naturally breed female Bai Yun and that human intervention would be necessary. Barbara Durrant, the director of our division, was able to collect semen from Shi Shi and use it to artificially inseminate Bai Yun, resulting in the birth of Hua Mei.

Sun bear Danum arrived with the help of estrous cycle monitoring.

Estrous cycle monitoring
Often when women are trying to conceive, doctors monitor their cycle using techniques to predict when ovulation will occur. Many of these techniques are not feasible to apply to our collection animals because they would require sedation. Instead, in addition to urine and fecal hormone monitoring, we collect vaginal cells and monitor changes using a modified Papanicolau stain and some good, old-fashioned microscopy work. The cells in many mammalian species have been found to change in color and shape as estrus progresses. Unlike the Pap smear women are familiar with, which checks for cervical cancer, we monitor the changes in vaginal cells, which requires a far less invasive method of collection. These cells can be obtained with operant conditioning or positive reinforcement training of the animal. It’s amazing what a sun bear will do for some honey water!

An example of a success achieved using this method is the birth of our first Bornean sun bear cub: Danum. A shift in vaginal cells from one dominant color to another, combined with behavioral observations by keepers and scientists, allowed us to pinpoint the right time to introduce the normally solitary male and female to each other with a decreased risk of aggression and increased chance of breeding.

In-vitro maturation (IVM), in-vitro fertilization (IVF), embryo development (ED)
Many of us remember the term “test tube babies.” Today, IVM, IVF, and ED techniques are being employed all around the world, enabling couples to have children despite a variety of fertility issues. Often a human female is given hormones to produce many oocytes (eggs) that are retrieved from her ovaries using ultrasound-guided aspiration. These oocytes are put into a medium specifically designed to help the oocyte mature (IVM) in preparation for fertilization. Sperm is then introduced to the egg in a petri dish (IVF) or by a procedure called intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).

The oocyte is then put back into the medium designed to promote embryonic growth in an incubator. That embryo is then implanted inside the female or frozen for future use. In our lab we are using these same techniques to try to produce embryos from endangered species. Our challenge is that we work with a variety of different species, all with their own special needs, and many of the oocytes we work with are from ovaries of animals that have passed away, leaving us one step behind in the maturation process. We have used these procedures on animals as common as cats and rabbits to animals as endangered as rhinos and polar bears.

It is no secret that the best part of this job for me is getting to see the fruits of my labor. I may be taking a petri dish that once contained oocytes and sperm out of the incubator and seeing a growing embryo, or standing in front of an exhibit watching an adorable sun bear cub climb up a tree stump, but the feeling of helping to create life is indescribable. My friends like to tell people I make babies. Well, if by babies they mean cubs, kittens, and pups, then I am happy to agree. It may not be the easiest job to explain to people, but I almost always get a response like, “That is so cool.” It is, and I finally found a way to tell people just how cool it is.

Nicole Ravida is a research coordinator for the Reproductive Physiology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Creating a Sperm Atlas.

188

Happy 21st Birthday, Bai Yun

Our birthday girl relaxes on her special day.

Happy 21st birthday to our panda mom, Bai Yun! It is hard to believe that 16 years ago, this beautiful, grand lady arrived at the San Diego Zoo as a curious, playful youngster, only to grow up and become one of the most popular pandas in the U.S.!

Bai is truly an ambassador for giant pandas. Since her arrival in 1996, we have learned so much from her about giant panda biology. As a result of this, she has raised worldwide public awareness on the plight of giant pandas in her home country of China.

Miss Bai has always been on the “cutting edge” of things. She has presented us with six beautiful cubs, making the San Diego Zoo the first in the U.S. and outside of China to produce the largest number of giant panda births! In addition, Bai almost broke the world record as being one of the oldest females to give birth in a managed-care facility. So many wonderful memories over the years, and yes, you guessed it, Bai is my number one panda!

For a birthday gift, Bai will be offered access to her garden room, after spending many months in her bedroom and den area. Here she can have more quiet and “personal” time away, but not too far, from her son. She can enjoy resting on her favorite platform, if she desires. We thought this was a fitting present to give our busy mom!

Happy birthday, Bai Yun, from your keepers and admirers. You are still as beautiful as ever, and we look forward to the future as we watch your new son grow!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Wins Best Mom Title.

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Panda Cub: 704 Grams

Breathtakingly adorable! Click on image for a larger view.

All is well!

This morning, at about 7:15, we had our first opportunity to examine Bai Yun’s newest cub. For the past week or so, Bai Yun has developed a regular habit of leaving the den to get breakfast in her sun room. Today, we took advantage of Bai Yun’s breakfast outing to get our first real look at the cub. The exam lasted only 3 minutes, but in that time our veterinarians were able to determine that the 25-day-old cub is healthy and weighs in at a robust 704 grams (24.8 ounces or 1.55 pounds). For comparison, Yun Zi weighed 1,259 grams (2.8 pounds) at 29 days (see Baby’s First Exam), Zhen Zhen weighed 1,020 grams or 2.2 pounds at 26 days, and Su Lin was 618 grams (22 ounces) at 22 days. The cub was quiet at the outset of the exam, but soon enough gave us a great display of its strong lungs!

Veterinarians were able to do a quick, yet thorough, exam of the cub’s limbs, mouth, ears, and more, and we’re happy to report that everything looks good! While it may be a few more weeks before we know what the cub’s sex is, or whether or not it has webbed toes or a spot on its tail, today was an important step in confirming that this cub has the most important quality that a panda cub can have: good health!

Bai Yun also showed us her best maternal behavior. She began eating her breakfast away from the cub, in the sun room, as usual, when the cub emitted a loud squawk during the exam. Bai Yun made it clear that she wanted to return to the den to be with the cub, so the exam was halted. Her maternal behavior continues to be exemplary and, clearly, she is doing a great job taking care of her latest cub. We are all so lucky to see this amazing mother in action!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: True Colors.

Note: See more exam photos on our Panda Photo Gallery.

195

Pandas: You Asked, We Answer

The panda cub on August 15.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Panda Cub: Late-night Observations

Bai Yun gets some rest with her cub secure in her arms.

Zookeepers are always “on call.” If we leave town, we let our supervisors know when we’ll be back, just in case they need us for anything. If an animal is sick, we work overtime. If there’s late-night construction, we’re at the Zoo at all hours making sure our animals are safe and secure. This is also true if one of our animals is expected to give birth or if she has a newborn.

Right now, the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Team has a schedule to insure that Bai Yun and her newest cub are observed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We began this schedule about a week before her cub was born and will continue to observe her 24 hours a day until the cub is at least 2 weeks old. Everybody involved with pandas takes turns rotating through the shifts. As I write this, it’s my turn to do the overnight shift.

So, here I sit, 11 p.m., in the video room of the Giant panda Research Station, watching Bai Yun and trying not to fall asleep. I have to say that I can’t complain much. It’s amazing to watch Bai Yun demonstrate her natural maternal instincts. Right now, the cub weighs only about 4 ounces (113 grams), so it’s my job to make sure that Bai Yun doesn’t sit, roll, or step on her itty-bitty cub. Bai Yun currently weighs around 220 pounds (100 kilograms) and has never accidentally rolled onto a cub. She’s very gentle with each of her movements and is constantly aware of where the cub is.

Of course, the cub is very noisy at this stage of its life and tells Bai Yun exactly where it is. If the cub wasn’t noisy, it would be easy for Bai to lose track of it. While on cub watch, it’s also my job to keep track of the cub’s vocalizations. I have to make sure that the cub makes some noise at least once every two hours. Believe me, that cub does a great job of keeping both me and Bai Yun awake all night!

The San Diego Zoo takes a hands-off approach when it comes to panda cubs; unless the cub or Bai Yun is in some distress, we do not interfere with her rearing of the cub. Bai Yun will barely leave the den for the first few weeks of the cub’s life. She keeps the cub cradled in the crook of her arm (much like humans cradle a baby in their arm) while she’s lying down or sitting up. If she does leave the den, the cub will not accompany her until it is able to follow her on its own. So far, Bai has left the den only twice (for 30 seconds to 1 minute each time) to get a drink of water. During these very brief moments, we have been able to see the cub!

It may surprise you to hear that these are the only glimpses of the cub that we’ve had. If you’ve been keeping a constant eye on Panda Cam, you’ve seen the cub the same amount of time as we have. We’ve been able to isolate these brief time periods on our fancy new DVR and have been able to get a concrete idea of how the cub is doing. It has a beautifully chubby belly, is very mobile, and definitely has a good set of lungs. That cub squawks the entire time Bai Yun is out of the den, letting her know that it is not happy to be left alone. Of course, in response to its vocalizations, Bai Yun immediately returns to keep the cub warm and safe.

During the next couple of weeks, we’ll see the cub begin to look like a giant panda. Its coloring will begin to come in first, before the cub even opens its eyes. After its skin pigmentation develops, that fuzzy, adorable cub fur will appear. Then the cub will begin to open its eyes. This will all develop in the next two to three weeks. During that time, Bai Yun’s trips out of the den will become more frequent and will be a bit longer. When Bai is comfortable leaving the den for roughly 10 minutes or so at a time, the Panda Team will begin talking about examining the cub. Until then, we’ll continue to watch the monitors and wait, just like you…except, I hope, you’re getting some sleep in the middle of the night!

Juli Thatcher is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Gao Gao Getting Big Big.

15

Black and White on Horizon

Our newborn cub is kept safe in Bai Yun’s protective arms.

Giant pandas are renowned for their distinctive black-and-white pelage; for many, it’s hard to relate the squirmy, pink giant panda neonate to the iconic fluffy black-and-white of older panda cubs. However, this long-tailed pink phase doesn’t last long, and by two weeks of age, the black-and-white markings on the panda cub’s skin are typically fairly distinct and herald the onset of a whole suite of developmental changes.

Of course, in the days soon after birth, the most important developmental changes we look for are simply continued growth and signs of vigor. We assess these characteristics by looking for a full belly (see Panda Cub: Big Belly) and loud squawking vocalizations. Both of these traits are most evident when Bai Yun leaves the den.

But the change in skin color, presaging the development of true fur, is another exciting and important milestone to watch for. Beyond the inherent cuteness of panda cubs at this stage, it also serves as an announcement, to all of us, that the most fragile period in the cub’s life has passed. So keep your eyes peeled, and look for the subtle color changes in about a week. When I see that change, I will start to sleep a little easier!

Right now, Bai Yun has her little cub tucked neatly under her chin, and they are both resting calmly. It is a beautiful sight to see and makes it hard to believe how quickly things will change for both Mom and cub.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Den Cam.

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Panda Cub: Big Belly!

Here’s a good glimpse of our newest panda!

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

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

So tiny, so loved!

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

Perfect.

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


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

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Panda Den Cam

Give us a peek, Bai Yun!

While Bai Yun and her one-day old cub are snuggled up in the birthing den at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, we are getting ready to share this incredible experience with the world. At 2 p.m PT today, the den cam will go live!

It is exciting to think about how many people around the world will be watching Bai Yun’s every move in the den and every developmental milestone the cub experiences. Although this is Bai Yun’s sixth cub, this incredible process is just as exciting to watch as it was back in 1999, when Bai Yun had her first cub, Hua Mei. Back in 1999, we had the den cameras set up as a way for researchers, keepers, and veterinarians to keep tabs on Bai Yun’s pregnancy, birth, and early postpartum period. Back then, we all gathered in the keeper kitchen and watched Bai Yun’s every move via several small video monitors. The video was all recorded on VHS tapes (which we still have, of course!), and we were able leave Bai Yun in peace while we took advantage of this window on Bai Yun and Hua Mei’s private world inside the den. It was, and still is, truly magical to watch.

Our video system has changed a bit over the years and, importantly, we can share this magical experience with the world. Enjoy the view!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub #6.