Yi Lu Ping An (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi

The time has come to say goodbye to our good-natured young panda, Yun Zi. Yesterday, January 9, 2014. He embarked on his most momentous adventure yet—a move to his homeland. After crating up easily, our boy was loaded into a vehicle for the trip to Los Angeles, where he caught his flight to China. Thanks to the diligence and careful planning of our staff, he is well prepared for his journey.

The keepers worked to ready Yun Zi for all of the transitions he is about to make. He began crate training some weeks ago, getting used to the transport crate he will live in for a few days as he hops across the pond and heads up to the mountains of his ancestral homeland. As anticipated for such a smart and easy-going boy, he adapted to his new crate easily, spending time feeding inside it and accepting treats from his keepers through the openings of the crate.

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Keepers have also been preparing him for the dietary transition he will undergo. In China, the pandas are not fed the low-starch, high-fiber biscuits and kibble they are used to getting in San Diego but instead receive a specially made formulation of bread that is foreign to our bears. Our keepers have access to that bread recipe and for some time have been whipping it up in our on-site kitchen so that Yun Zi could adapt to this new culinary staple. Thankfully, he had taken to the new bread, perhaps better than any of our returnees ever had.  This means dietary changes in China won’t be a big deal for our boy.

Since he is traveling in winter, staff wanted to prepare Yun Zi for the big change in temperatures he will experience. Keepers had been fattening him up a bit, and he has little rolls of flesh that will serve as extra insulation against the cooler mountain air. He looked nice and robust.

Staff has also prepared videos to leave with Yun Zi’s new Chinese handlers that detail aspects of the training he has received. This will help his new keepers to better understand the commands he has been taught, and, hopefully, will enable them to continue to use his training to facilitate future husbandry and veterinary procedures. Our video contains shots of Yun Zi sitting quietly while having his blood drawn, for example; his training allows this procedure without the use of anesthetic. This is a highly desirable, low-stress way to get biomedical data from him, and we wanted to be sure his new handlers are aware of his capabilities.

Yun Zi isn’t traveling alone on this voyage. He is attended by his primary keeper, Jen, who has been with him from birth. She had been actively engaged in his training, both during and prior to his preparation for departure to China. Yun Zi knows and trusts her, and this will be a comfort to him on his journey. In addition, a veterinarian is accompanying our boy on his flight, should there be any medical concerns to address. We anticipate that will be unlikely.

On Wednesday, the keepers began preparing his food bundles for the trip, and I know they were selecting choice bamboo culm to keep him content on the flight. Jen will ensure he receives regular munchies throughout the trip and will regularly refresh his water and clean up his crate to keep him comfortable. All of the plans and preparations are in place.

All that’s left now is to wave goodbye. 

Farewell, Yun Zi. You were a fun and exciting part of our panda research program. Even from far away, you will always be a member of our San Diego Zoo giant panda family. Yi lu ping an.

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



Panda Cam Brings Healing

Our animal cams aren’t just for fleeting entertainment. As a wildlife conservation organization, our mission is to connect people to wildlife and conservation, and our live cams are incredibly powerful tools that allow us to connect people to wildlife worldwide in real time. With the birth of our sixth panda, Xiao Liwu, Panda Cam has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. We get comments from people all over the world about Panda Cam, but one in particular touched us, and we wanted to share it with you. Enjoy.

“My sister and I began watching these bears when our little gift was born. Then I took them to the hospital where I work and began sharing. For all of my patients and our nursing staff from Sutter Cancer Center in Northern CA, I say THANK YOU to all at SDZ. Your Panda cams and blogs have made a difference in how our very ill patients cope and get through their medical processes.

I am an Integrated Therapist & Medical Aromatherapist. The first thing I do for a new patient who will be staying for awhile is show them how to log on to the Panda Cam. We have all watched our “little gift” be born and grow & now make his debut. He is a wonderful deterrent to pain, depression, loneliness and hopelessness. We all thank you so much for providing this wonderful gift for us and our patients. It speaks to the Quality of their Life as they go through treatments.

This is something that should be put in all hospital long-term care and critical-care units. In the love of this little fuzz ball, my patients need less medication for coping and sleeping. I have been known to turn off their computer as they fall asleep with Xiao Liwu sleeping quietly on the screen in their lap. [All hospitals] should consider using this in their critical care and long-term care facilities.

We all love you Bai Yun and our little healing bear, “little Wu.” Happy anniversary to Gao Gao! Forever fans, Robin Gayle & Dixie Lee.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.


Starting the New Year Healthy: 20th Exam

Giant panda cub Xiao Liwu was a very busy boy during his weekly exam at the San Diego Zoo. When brought from his den, the rambunctious cub went straight to his toys, climbing headfirst into a doughnut-shaped plastic ring, playing with a ball, and frolicking in a tub while chewing bamboo. He quickly indicated, by running off and squirming from his keepers, that he wanted to play versus being weighed and measured.

The cub’s 20th exam showed the five-month-old panda is healthy and developing well. He is stronger, more agile, and continues to erupt baby teeth and is mouthing, chewing, and teething a bit. The young cub weighed in at 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) and measured just over 30 inches (76.5 centimeters) in length from nose to tail tip.



“Xiao Liwu was very active, very strong, and very exploratory during his exam this morning,” said PK Robbins, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. “He is moving about very quickly and exhibiting great confidence in his strength and climbing abilities. At this rate, I think we will see him venturing into more areas of the giant panda habitat very soon.”
Click on chart to enlarge.

Click on chart to enlarge.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.

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.


Pandas, Bears, and Pregnancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Panda Update: Seeking Seclusion

Only time will tell if Bai Yun is indeed pregnant.

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

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

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

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

We’ll keep you posted as to her progress.

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


Black & White Overnight

Hello bloggers and panda fans! I Hope you are getting ready and excited for the Black & White Sleepover we are having the next two weekends (July 23 and 30). I know I am!  We have a fun-filled morning for you on Sunday. After breakfast, you will be joining me down in Panda Canyon at our research facility for a special presentation before the Zoo opens. I will be your narrator and panda expert for the morning – come prepared to ask questions!

Later in the morning, our sleepover campers will be heading to the main exhibit and at exactly 8:30 a.m. we will be turning our Panda Cam on our campers! Last year, our campers came fully equipped with signs, hats, and giant hands to wave at the camera. Set your alarms and make sure to log onto our Panda Cam to see our Black & White Overnight campers Sunday, July 24 and 31, at 8:30 a.m.!

Nick Orrantia is a panda narrator at the Giant Panda Research Station


Panda Photo Contest

Nighttime Zoo: China Celebration is all about celebrating the colorful culture and animals of China, and we wanted to have a photo contest as part of the festivities. It just so happens that one of the Chinese animals we’re celebrating, the giant panda, is also one of the most photogenic animals at the San Diego Zoo. So it seemed like a no-brainer to have a panda photo contest!

So what do you get if you win? You and three friends get the VIP treatment with our Backstage Pass! We’ll also use one second-place winner’s photo as our facebook profile pic. Photos must be taken at the Zoo and they must be of our pandas. See the rest of the terms and conditions, and upload your best panda photos, here. We’re looking forward to seeing all your beautiful bear photography. Good luck!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner.


Pandas: The Nose Knows

Yun Zi has his own communication style.

It’s hard to find someone who is not charmed by the entertaining antics of a roly-poly panda bear. Being one of only four zoos in the United States to exhibit pandas, the San Diego Zoo certainly sees its fair share of panda fans. Guests love watching the cute black-and-white bears munch on bamboo, roll through bark chips, or do handstands against a tree. Although these behaviors are enthralling and endearing, scientists believe they may also be serving as an essential means of communication between the bears.

The most distinguishing feature of a panda is their black-and-white fur. The fur keeps them warm during the snowy mountainous winters of Sichuan, and scientists believe that the black-and-white coat may provide some camouflage in the shadowy bamboo forests where pandas are found. Because these bears are solitary, and are not necessarily easy to see in their native habitat, pandas use scent marking as a means of communication. Instead of sending e-mails or posting fliers, pandas will “post” their personal information on a nearby stump, rock, or tree. This is done by lifting their stubby, white tails and rubbing their scent gland on the chosen item to broadcast vital information. A male panda, such as the San Diego Zoo’s very own Gao Gao, may even do a handstand to urinate or rub his scent gland high on a tree to advertise his size and virility. This message communicates to other passing males and females that he is strong, mature, and healthy. Other males may think twice about crossing paths with this formidable opponent, and it may help females become acquainted with the smell of Mr. Big, Strong, and Healthy. This could bolster the male’s chances of breeding with females in the future.

Communication works best when it’s a two-way street, so female pandas also do their fair share of scent-marking. A female panda’s personal scent changes during her estrus cycle, and male pandas can identify the changes in her scent, some of which are related to the changes in her hormone levels. Let’s picture a male panda roaming through the shadowy forest, looking for a female. His best chance is to sniff her out because the female will have spent some time using the scent gland under her tail to broadcast her olfactory message. Once the male actually locates his potential mate, he may keep tabs on her and check in periodically to see if she’s close to estrus. When he thinks the timing is right, he will approach, although he may not be the only potential suitor vying for the female’s attention. Males may compete to be her mate, but even the winner may not be chosen to couple with the female. It seems that sometimes the ladies have a preference about which male becomes the father to their cubs. Perhaps in the panda species the nice guy actually wins?

Although it does not seem related to reproduction, female pandas have been observed rolling and rubbing novel scents such as flowers and bark chips on their backs, much like applying perfume. The San Diego Zoo’s female, Bai Yun, particularly enjoys rolling in cinnamon and nutmeg. She then proceeds to spend her day cruising around smelling like a giant black-and-white pumpkin pie. There is yet no known reason why pandas do this, but it makes one wonder if pandas sometimes fragrance themselves just because they enjoy the aroma.

It is interesting to note how much information can be passed between pandas without a spoken word. Detailed information is communicated using only local, renewable, natural resources. In essence, pandas have found an extremely efficient means of communication without creating a carbon footprint. Could humans create a method of communication that is so effective, yet Earth-friendly?

This post highlights a few examples of what makes pandas such an amazing species and offers an example of biomimicry. The field of biomimicry involves learning about nature, learning from nature, and being inspired by nature. If you would like to learn more about the Zoo’s efforts in biomimicry, please visit our recently renovated Biomimicry section.

Sunni Robertson is a lead educator at the San Diego Zoo.


Sun Bears: Next Steps

Sun bears Palu and Marcella.

It has been some time since sun bear Pagi left us to travel north to her new home (see Overseeing Bears: The SSP) . Our staff has maintained regular contact with the keepers in her new home, and all reports are that she is thriving there. After initially developing a relationship with her older sister, Bulan, it appears that the young girls have had a falling out. No matter, as Pagi is happy interacting with her keepers and continues to enjoy training opportunities with them.

Palu is still with his mother, living comfortably on the Sun Bear Trail  in the San Diego Zoo’s Asian Passage zone. Despite Palu’s continued presence, Marcella is probably not supporting his nutritional needs significantly; nursing is still seen, though rarely. Palu is a big, growing boy—he is heavier than his mother by several kilos—and his calories come primarily from food provisioned by keepers. Since the time of maternal dependence is ending, Marcella’s body is returning to its not-so-maternal baseline state.

As a result of this, Marcella has recently shown us some signs that she may have had a mild estrus. Her behavior changed, and she became more solicitous with Palu. For his part, the young male seemed confused by these changes, but it got us thinking that it’s time to separate these two animals before Marcella has a solid, fertile estrus. We don’t think it is very likely that Palu is reproductively mature yet, at age two, but we can’t be certain that he isn’t capable of fathering his own offspring.  

Marcella typically cycles every three to five months. This is actually a pretty active estrus schedule for a Bornean sun bear in North America. Some females don’t cycle at all, and many cycle only once per year. Even with more frequent estruses, we can predict a quiet period for Marcella until sometime in the spring. During this lull, we will need to arrange for our big little bear to wean.

Marcella and Palu will settle into separate lives in the next few months. Keep an eye on Sun Bear Trail, as there will be some interesting bear behavior there in the near future.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Read her previous post, 300 Pandas.