giant panda research station


Gao Gao: Class Clown

Gao Gao was busy munching on his leafy bamboo this morning. Image taken from Panda Cam.

Gao Gao was busy munching on his leafy bamboo this morning. Image taken from Panda Cam.

Although our senior panda, Gao Gao, is still off exhibit, he is much improved after his May surgery (see post Surgery for Gao Gao). I spoke with Gaylene Thomas, animal care supervisor, to get the latest scoop on Papa Gao. She said he had additional dental work performed on a damaged/worn molar in June, and that procedure seemed to help guide him down Recovery Road—his appetite and energy have returned!

Being a born bamboo-eating machine, Gao Gao had always preferred to eat the thick bamboo culm, which was so hard on his teeth, rather than the much-gentler leafy bamboo. And that was just at the feedings when he was even interested in food; leading up to his May surgery, Gao Gao frequently exhibited lethargy and loss of appetite. But these days, our senior panda has taken to eating the leafy bamboo with renewed gusto, so there is no need to provide the thicker stuff for him. He is more active and animated, often exploring his yard and playfully seeking his keepers’ attention. Sometimes he does his playful antics to elicit tactile interaction: back or head scratches, provided by the keepers with the use of a wooden back scratcher. But sometimes he just does them to make his keepers smile! Who knew Gao could be such a clown?

So why do we continue to keep him in the off-exhibit north yard? Plain and simple: the Panda Team still wants to keep a close eye on him, and that side of the Giant Panda Research Station has a larger air-conditioned bedroom for him and much easier access to the area where his blood pressure is monitored. Gao Gao is eager to participate in these sessions once again, with apple slices and honey (or perhaps just that extra attention?) as his reward. Whatever the reason, Gaylene shared that she is “really happy he’s doing so well.” Me, too!

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


Pandas: Me Time

Hi, panda fans! I can almost see you.

For most of the last week, panda mother Bai Yun has been given access to her garden room at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station throughout the day. She hasn’t really been out there much, though we have noticed her sitting in her sunroom and looking out to the grassy garden floor. It’s as if she is toying with the idea of exploring, but not yet sure if she should indulge herself.

We offer garden room access because it is the natural progression for a postpartum panda to need more time away from her cub, not because she tires of caring for her youngster, but because nature requires this of her. A wild panda isn’t provided with high calorie, nutrient-dense biscuits, yams, and carrots each day. Instead, she must rely on the nutrition provided by bamboo, which is comparatively nutrient and calorie poor. As her appetite comes back online from her postpartum fast, and the energy drain of lactating for an increasingly hungry youngster take its toll, mother panda must spend more and more time out of the den meeting her dietary needs.

Of course, Bai Yun is not a wild panda, and she does benefit from regular feedings by her keepers. She can count on twice daily provisioning of the best bamboo we have to offer, and a nice pile of supplemental foods to boot. She doesn’t have to wander far or be gone long to meet her needs. But she still seems to have that drive to be out of the den, away from the cub, for periods of the day. Surely those among us with children of our own can relate to the need for a little “me time”?

And so we have offered Bai Yun her garden room. In the past, once she determines that it is time, she will move outside during the day and rest atop her platform. She seems to enjoy the breeze, the sunshine, and the opportunity to interact with her keepers. Bai Yun is still very close to the den and can easily hear the cub should it vocalize a need. But there is something about emerging from the darkness of the den into the light of a warm fall afternoon that seems to be of value to Bai Yun.

At the moment, she’s taking that emergence slowly. Today, after the morning cub exam, she chose to lie down in the bedroom, a few feet from the den. She was actually napping with her head hanging out into the sunroom. This absence wasn’t driven by hunger; she just wanted to be out of the den for a bit. She is beginning to seek that “me time” at her own pace. We expect that over the coming week or two we will see her explore that garden room and settle in atop her favorite platform in the corner.

Speaking of the cub exam, our staff managed to get their hands on the little guy in the den this morning. With an abdominal girth of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters), and a length of 16 inches (41.5 centimeters), you can understand why he reminds me of a sausage: he’s nearly as big around as he is long! Historically, however, he is not our heaviest cub thus far at 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). So he’s a petite sausage, I suppose.

Mei Sheng started out a little lighter than his sisters but became one of our larger cubs after several months. Whether or not our newest panda cub will follow in his eldest brother’s footsteps remains to be seen.

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

View more photos in our Panda Gallery…

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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.


Panda Cub: Furry and Fine

At last! A glimpse of the cub, now 8 days old, taken on August 6 at 10:30 a.m.

The anticipation had been mounting on Saturday at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, because Bai Yun had not made an excursion from the den since Thursday evening. We knew she was due for a trip out soon. And we were anxious for a good look at her youngster, hoping to see progress in its development over the last 36 hours.

Then, at about 2:37 p.m., Bai Yun indulged us. She first hydrated with a long drink. Then she headed out to her sunroom for a quick snack of bamboo. She only had time for a few bites, but since this was the first time she had eaten since before the birth, we wouldn’t have expected her to settle in for a lengthy feast. Finally she finished up with defecation and urination, pulling extra bamboo about her to make her “bamboo skirt.”

Can you find the cutie in the straw?

We aren’t totally certain what the significance of the bamboo skirt might be. It’s probably a way to hide the site of her waste and mute the scent of it as well. We might imagine that could be important for a wild panda mother that is taking pains to hide her den and her cub from the outside world. At this stage of the game, even when she leaves the den she would not be traveling far, so anything she can do to hide evidence of her presence might be advantageous.

We did get that long look at the cub we were hoping for. And boy, does this cub look good. The belly is rounder, and the limbs look stockier. The neck looks a little thicker. And the body is covered by a coat of white fur that is obviously more dense than before. The physical markers of healthy development are all over this cub.

What’s more, the cub was more tolerant of Bai Yun’s departure from the den. Sure, it squawked its disapproval from time to time, but for most of Momma’s absence the little one bobbed its head and appeared to be rather patiently waiting for her return. As the moment wore on, it appeared to be tiring a bit and put its head down on the floor for a breath or two to rest.

After an absence of nearly six minutes, Bai Yun returned to the den. She immediately scooped up her cub, placed it near her teats and began licking the youngster in a soothing manner. In a flash the cub was thoroughly contented.

We’d expect nothing less from Bai Yun!

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

Watch mother and cub daily on Panda Cam.

Here’s video from Yun Zi’s party, held August 1:


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.


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.


Panda Cub: 1st Overnight

Bai Yun keeps her newborn close and out of sight!

I checked into the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station this morning at about 3:30. The keeper on duty before me reported nothing unusual. She had gotten a few very brief glimpses of the cub as Bai Yun shifted position and had heard the cub vocalize on a number of occasions. However, she had also noted several long bouts of resting for both mother and cub.

This was good to hear. After the fatiguing event that is labor, new panda mothers are met with a demanding neonate who needs all of her attention to stay warm and comfortable. The cubs are largely hairless and lacking in body fat; thus, Mom’s warm embrace is essential to their survival in those early days. To keep such a small cub warm, the much larger mother must hold the baby up off the ground in her arms.

This means Bai Yun cannot simply sprawl out in the den to rest. She must instead engage in a balancing act that allows her to rest while snuggling that cub against her body. What’s more, she has to change positions every 20 to 60 minutes to allow the cub access to her teats for lactation. This active postpartum schedule is not unlike that of a human mother who has just given birth, except that, unlike a human, Bai Yun never sets her newborn down. Her own paws and arms are her neonate’s bassinet.

Throughout the early, dark hours of this morning, Bai Yun shifted from resting posture to a nursing posture regularly. Though I was never able to get a good glimpse of the cub nursing, there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest nursing was occurring. Bai Yun held herself in a familiar posture, bracing the newborn against her upper abdomen. She periodically moved the cub across her body as she pushed the youngster from one nipple to the next. The cub vocalized in protest at the adjustments but grew quiet shortly thereafter, probably because it was latched on and suckling.

Hopefully, one of the panda team members will confirm nursing soon, either by observing the cub latched on or by seeing smears of milk on Bai Yun’s fur after a presumed nursing bout. And once Bai Yun relaxes enough to give us a good view of the cub—something we have yet to obtain—we hope to see a full, distended belly that indicates it is well fed.

So far, so good.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Gives Birth.

Note: Our Panda Cam will focus on mother and cub in the den starting at 2 p.m. PT today!


Panda Hearing Study

Yun Zi enjoying snow time back in December.

Giant pandas are undeniably charismatic and have been ambassadors for wildlife and wild land conservation for decades. I am proud to say that since Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived in San Diego in 1996, and we began in earnest a collaborative scientific program with our colleagues in Wolong, China, we have continued to strive for a deeper understanding of giant pandas. Our scientific programs have focused on their reproductive behavior and physiology and how to provide the best possible husbandry and care, and we have delved into their perceptual world.

Our studies of perception began with research focusing on how pandas use scent communication to coordinate their social lives. Since then, we have also focused on acoustic communication and have been an active partner in a collaborative effort to understand just what information is contained in the giant panda’s amazing repertoire of vocalizations.

Our focus on panda perception has been highlighted here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station since 2009, as we have been studying the hearing range of giant pandas. This research was intriguing in a couple of ways: we were excited to find out more about this fundamental aspect of their biology, and we knew this data would allow us to better assess how human-generated noise might disturb giant pandas or disrupt important communication.

Since this study began, we’ve collected data on four bears: Bai Yun, Gao Gao, Zhen Zhen, and Su Lin. With data from three of those four pandas under our belt, and data collection on Gao Gao nearly finished, we now turn our full attention to 2½-year-old Yun Zi. He is still primarily in the training stage of the study, but in the coming months he will be our focus! I am very excited to see how he moves through the study and what his data will tell us about his perceptual world.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Su Lin: Back to Bi Feng Xia.


Yun Zi: Burst of Energy

Remember when trees had nothing to fear from Yun Zi?

Through the years that I’ve narrated at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, I have had the pleasure of watching three panda cubs grow from birth to their departure to China. I’ve seen their personalities come out and have watched them bloom into sub-adulthood. There are the early months where mobility is limited and dependent on Mom, and there are the times when learning to walk and climb can become overwhelming for a cub. Some of my favorite moments with the youngsters have been between the ages of 2 and 3 years. The cubs will often have days where they become extremely energetic and behave in dramatically different ways than what our Zoo guests are accustomed to. Yun Zi has hit this stage, and I have to say it’s a blast to watch him!

The last couple of weeks have proven to be very interesting. Yun Zi has been running around the exhibit several times, dashing up and down the climbing structures several times, and running through his pool, making his exhibit a nice slip n’ slide for our poor keepers. Having done keeper work with our Panda Team for a few years now, I can honestly say that muddy, wet bamboo can be very difficult to clean up! There was one morning when a keeper and I went into Yun Zi’s exhibit to clean and just stood there for a second to take everything in. He had thrown bamboo all over the enclosure and defecated in spots that can be difficult to clean. Yun Zi had even decided to break several of the branches off of a new tree that had just been planted. What usually is a 30-minute cleaning job maximum with two keepers turned into a good hour.

Needless to say, we do our best to provide enrichment for our animals to keep them busy, but at this particular age it is very common to see the kids turn into decorators and change their exhibit around in some way. As Gao Gao and Bai Yun are in the main viewing enclosures, Yun Zi is occupying our north exhibit for the time being (usually open to guests from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).

Hope everyone has happy holidays!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Hello, Gao Gao.

Note: Our December Animal Care Wish List is now posted and includes an opportunity to donate toward a sturdy, panda-proof tree at $10 increments. Every little bit helps! Thank you.





Bai Yun inhales a tantalizing scent.

Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blog. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

At the San Diego Zoo, there is one animal that has always stolen the show – the giant panda.  People from all over the world are infatuated with the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, and we got the chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of all the “panda-monium.”

We met with Suzanne Hall, a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, for a tour of the Giant Panda Research Station.

If you’ve ever been to the Zoo, you’ve probably passed by the Panda Research Station billions of times and never thought of what goes on inside, but believe me, a lot does.  It takes a lot of educated and passionate people to conserve a species, and Ms. Hall is the epitome of a passionate individual who strives for change. When asked to describe her job, she said, “We are the science of saving species” and after telling us all about her job, there was no denying it.

Ms. Hall’s focus is on bears and their specific behaviors. From observing animals in their natural environment to writing blogs about the animals, Ms. Hall is incredibly invested in her job.  A big part of her job revolves around the study of animals’ behaviors and recording them and then applying her knowledge. So we could experience a day in the life of a research technician, Ms. Hall gave us a small ethogram (a table of different types of behaviors) allowing us to see what tools she and her colleagues work with. She showed us a video of Keesha, a sloth bear, and asked us to record what we saw based on the previously given ethogram codes. We only watched and recorded behaviors from a two-minute video, which is miniscule compared to the hours that research technicians spend observing animals. I really enjoyed observing animals, and it was exciting to see what a day in the life of a research technician is like.

Right now, Ms. Hall is focusing on sun bears and educated us about the challenges they face, as well as the steps the Institute is taking to help them.  According to Ms. Hall, sun bears are incredibly likely to go extinct due to the recent decline of their habitat by 30 percent.  Researchers have been studying sun bear cub behaviors at the San Diego Zoo and hope to compare their observations to orphaned sun bears in Borneo. The goal of this research is to provide some insight on the behavior and survival of orphans in the wild. It’s also important to have animals in managed-care facilities so there is a self-sustaining breeding population in the case that something happens to the animals in the wild. These animals play a crucial role in educating visitors about the species and why they are so important to the environment. They also allow for research to be conducted to aid a population in the wild.

To learn more about her job, Ms. Hall gave us an exclusive tour of the Giant Panda Research Station. She spends most of her time with the animals, but when she’s not there, she is writing blog posts as well. She led us through the building and to the main food source for the pandas, the bamboo refrigerator. Most of the bamboo fed to the pandas is grown on Zoo and Safari Park grounds, and considering the size of the bamboo refrigerator, that’s a lot!

After learning so much about pandas, we went into the exhibit viewing area to observe and learn about the specific pandas. One of the pandas, Bai Yun, has been with the Zoo since 1996! Ms. Hall talked to us about how all the Zoo animals are given enrichment objects to stimulate natural behaviors. Researchers are able to identify which objects the animal favors, as well as observe how they interact with the objects. Bai Yun’s favorite enrichment items include kitchen spices and perfumes. She prefers pumpkin pie spice and Polo cologne, and she actually covers herself with it!

It was really exciting to be able to experience a completely different side of the pandas by understanding what methods are being employed to study their behavior, as well as talking to a professional about her job. From now on I’ll never view the panda exhibit the same way!

Katherine, Real World Team (week 2)