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218

Big Changes for Little Bears

Xiao Liwu is working on his motor skills.

In recent weeks, a lot has been happening with our bear population at the San Diego Zoo. In particular, some of our smallest bears have been undergoing significant transitions to their daily routine.

Our panda cub is preparing for his debut on exhibit. For him, this is a natural progression as his skill set advances, and he becomes more agile. A month or so ago, Xiao LiWu was a fairly immobile little bear, content to sleep for hours inside the den while his mother stretched her legs in other areas of the facility. Now, his ability to crawl has transformed into good walking skills, and he is ambling around regularly.

Recently, the cub walked, on his own, a good distance toward the north exhibit where he will first meet his admiring public. He got nearly to the door of that exhibit when he encountered a barrier: a slider door in the open position jutted into his travel path about a foot. He investigated the slider and pressed up against it, spending several minutes working the problem this obstacle presented. Ultimately, he couldn’t quite figure out how to go around, as his mother had done on her pass through the tunnel. Deterred, he turned around and headed back to the den for a nap. Before he is regularly on exhibit, he will have figured out how to overcome little adversities like this one.

Our other small bears, the sun bears, have also undergone some transitions in the last few weeks. After unsuccessful pairing attempts for Marcella and Francis earlier this year, we moved Francis to an off-exhibit area where he could receive lots of human attention and training opportunities. The quiet time away from public viewing seemed to serve him well, and he slowly settled into a nice routine. In the fall, we began to acclimate him to a new exhibit near the foot of bear canyon, an area some of our other bears had done very well in. With a slow-moving protocol, we were finally able to get Francis comfortable being on exhibit.

In December, we moved Marcella out of the exhibit on Sun Bear Trail and placed her adjacent to Francis in an exhibit on Center Street. We want her close by the male should she cycle again, but we didn’t want to move Francis away from a place he seems comfortable in. Thankfully, Marcella has been quite adaptable with moves like this, and she is settling in fine. Shortly after her move up the hill, keepers noted that Francis seemed more willing to accept Marcella in his new space. He has even started bringing her gifts, leaving his enrichment objects at the gate that separates him from his potential mate. In time, we hope that this builds into an acceptance of Marcella that promotes successful breeding between our sun bears. It is important for them to try again, as no sun bear cubs have survived more than a few days in the US since the birth of Marcella’s twin cubs nearly five years ago.

As the year winds down, we expect these recent changes will help our bears settle well into the next phases of their lives. We are hopeful that the New Year will be good to our animals, as Xiao Liwu grows into a robust little panda, and our sun bears will (fingers crossed) succeed in breeding. I would also like to extend my warm wishes to you for a happy holiday season and a peaceful transition to a new year.

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

40

Science for Kids: Observing

Do you remember watching panda Su Lin when she was born in 2005?

We are coming up on bear pregnancy-watch season at the San Diego Zoo! Both our giant panda Bai Yun and polar bear Chinook have bred this year, and we are anxiously awaiting signs that they are pregnant. Our fingers are crossed, and all the tools we use to monitor their status are just about ready to go. Of course, we are all excited by the prospect of bear cubs in 2012, and I think it’s safe to say that we will all enjoy the opportunity we have to look into the bears’ dens and observe these ursid moms and their cubs.

An important aspect of our conservation research is the study of animal behavior, which tells us much about the biology of the animals we love and provides us with tools to assess how the animals are doing and what a “typical” animal should be doing during important phases of its life. The study of animal behavior can provide tremendous insights into a species’ biology and gives us tools we can use to help conserve them. While the behavioral data we collect fits into a scientifically devised systematic framework, there is much to be gained from simple observation as well.

I have tried to share the joy of observing animals with my kids in hopes that it will also provide a connection with science and what it means to be a scientist. Often, when we are out and about in our neighborhood or at the park near our home, we stop to watch what the various animals we see are doing. It is amazing how exciting and exotic a squirrel can seem if you really stop and take a few minutes to watch the way it interacts with its environment, the way it responds to your presence, and the various ways it vocalizes and flags its tail to send signals to other animals around it. One of our other favorite animal-watching activities is going on a “bug safari,” which simply entails going into our backyard and turning over a rock. This simple excursion provides a window into the fascinating world of potato bugs, ants, and worms. Very cool!

Panda Cam viewers watched Mei Sheng grow to roly-poly cuteness in the birthing den in 2003.

Another readily accessible way for most kids to experience being an animal behaviorist is to watch our own exotic bears through Panda Cam and Polar Cam. While giant panda and polar bear cubs are undeniably cute, they are also fascinating to watch, and the care and patience the mother bear shows while tending to her offspring is fascinating. After each of Bai Yun’s cubs, our scientific and animal care staff watches the activity in the den in great detail and with unflagging fascination. I love that this very same view into the den will be available to anyone who visits our website.

We are all counting the days to the (hoped for) panda and polar bear births. As part of that, we are making sure that all of our camera systems and microphones are ready in the dens so that we can continue our studies of maternal care behavior in bears. This time around, I hope some young scientists out there will study the bears along with us.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Children and Nature.