giant panda research


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 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.


Panda Enrichment

Yun Zi

The Giant Panda Research Center was full of activity yesterday, November 1. Yun Zi was being very entertaining for our guests, especially with his enrichment. Our keepers gave him a pile of soil and shavings sprinkled with scent. He gave our guests a show by rolling all around in the soil, rubbing it on top of his head. It was like a kid rolling around in the sand on the beach. Once he was finished, he looked more like a small black bear than a giant panda. He was a day late for Halloween!

Bai Yun seemed very content. At one point she sat on top of some branches while resting her head on the tiny hammock that is attached to her tree. She just looked so silly! And at the end of the day, while Bai Yun was in her pond and Yun Zi in his hammock, both sat happily eating their dinner.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: A Beautiful Day.



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)


Panda Conservation: Our Priority

Bai Yun

After studying the giant pandas here at the San Diego Zoo for about 15 years, it is hard not to grow attached them. Every day, I have the luxury of looking away from my computer and out my window at Yun Zi; or I can descend a quick flight of stairs to go say “hello” to Bai Yun and Gao Gao. These bears never cease to charm and amaze me! And I’m not embarrassed to feel satisfaction that they “recognize” me and will approach me when I call to them. I certainly don’t have as close a relationship to our pandas as their keepers do, but they know me, and I’m glad of it!

But while I feel a very personal attachment to every bear that has ever called the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station home, from Shi Shi to Yun Zi, I always try to focus on our primary goal: giant panda conservation. All of our efforts, from research to husbandry and education, are designed to enhance our knowledge of these incredible bears and share our knowledge with the public to enhance future prospects for these bears in the wild.

Recently, our colleagues in China have been working very hard to develop a system that will successfully foster the reintroduction of giant pandas to the wild. As reintroduction has always been the ultimate goal of managed-care conservation breeding efforts, I have been very excited to see the strides that have been made in recent years. My colleagues and I at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research have had a number of conversations over the years regarding our hope that, “maybe,” one of the descendants of a San Diego-born panda would one day roam the bamboo forests of Sichuan Provence. Or perhaps, one of Bai Yun’s own granddaughters would one day give birth to a cub of her own in an old-growth tree den deep in the mountain forests above the Wolong Breeding Center, her own birthplace. Of course, these are just our hopes at this point, but we can’t imagine a more satisfying life for a giant panda.

In recent months, we have heard from our colleagues at Bi Feng Xia that Su Lin will be moved into one of the very large, natural enclosures. Whether or not this means one of her offspring will be a candidate for a future reintroduction, we don’t know, but the prospect is certainly an exciting one. In the meantime, we will all enjoy the fact that Su Lin will experience habitat that shares some of the characteristics of the vast bamboo forests that wild pandas inhabit.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Save the Bear.


Yun Zi’s Spring Break

Yun Zi

Yun Zi is currently enjoying a change of scenery, where the grass is greener and the trees are in bloom. The 111-pound (50kg), 3-foot-tall (when standing) young adult is trying out new climbing challenges in one of the exhibits that is visible to the public (and one that has a better camera for all his fans at home!), the one he first saw as a young cub. He will temporarily have access to this space, depending on Bai Yun’s breeding time. Please be patient with our Yun Zi as he will have a slow acclimation to this exhibit.  He will still have access to an off-exhibit area while he gets used to the new exhibit and dealing with his paparazzi.

Yun Zi is also moving forward with his training for the hearing study.  He is currently learning how to be patient and to sit with his chin on a small shelf.  The next step will be to target (touch his nose) to a red circle when he hears a sound. This study will help our researchers determine his range of hearing. He is an extremely intelligent panda, and he challenges my patience as his keeper and trainer. Yun Zi takes his training extremely seriously and is always ready for a training session.  I am excited that we are working toward including him in the hearing study.  I am extremely proud of him and excited to see him excel like his sisters Su Lin and Zhen Zhen.

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


Panda Lab for Students

Yun Zi

As a panda researcher, my typical workday is spent collecting and managing behavioral data on the pandas, writing, and doing other research-related tasks. But recently, I had the opportunity to spend the day working with another division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, the Conservation Education Division.

One of the primary goals of the Conservation Education Division (or Con Ed, as we call it) is to connect students and teachers to wildlife by connecting them to conservation science. Con Ed has the state-of-the-art Conservation Education Laboratory, which is located inside the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. The lab contains various scientific tools and equipment that allow the students to have a truly hands-on experience learning about conservation science.

The Con Ed staff meets with more than 600 students per month, covering all ages, from kindergarteners all the way up through college students. The students get to tour the Beckman Center, see all of the various laboratories, and meet our scientists as they’re actively engaged in ongoing research projects. They then spend some time in the education lab conducting experiments and learning about science in a fun, informal setting. The Con Ed staff does an amazing job of providing a conservation science experience to diverse student populations in an attempt to improve conservation literacy and creatively showcase our programs and approaches.

Bai Yun runs a panda teaching lab of her own!

So, as part of an in-house professional development opportunity, I am working with the Con Ed staff to create an education module focusing on giant panda research that could be used in the education lab on a regular basis. We are working together, utilizing my knowledge of giant panda research, to create an education curriculum that will, I hope, get the kids excited about what can be accomplished through conservation science.

Through our research, we’ve learned a great deal about giant pandas over the past 12 years; the challenge is to create a module that will encapsulate all of our techniques and information into something that will both teach and inspire the kids. We’re hoping that we can teach the students about using a multidisciplinary approach to conservation science, as we’ve done with our giant panda research program, as a very effective technique for tackling a complicated research problem. We’re still in the beginning stages, but I’m excited about the opportunity to collaborate with the Con Ed staff and share our message of conservation.

Education outreach is such a crucial part of any conservation program. We can conduct research and learn valuable information about endangered animals and their habitats…but if we don’t then share that information with the public, people aren’t motivated to take action that will protect and nurture our natural world. I hope that by educating and motivating the many students that visit our research institute, we’re having a positive impact on shaping the next generation of conservationists.

The Con Ed staff is headed to the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station for a meeting next week. I’ll keep everyone posted on how things progress.

Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.