giant panda


What to Eat When There’s Nothing to Eat?

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

The answer? Nothing.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that some bears spend long periods of time in dens, inactive and not consuming significant amounts of food or water. Some bears in some locations survive eating nothing by doing almost nothing. They become inactive, which is sometimes called winter sleep or hibernation. Although you may be familiar with this aspect of bear ecology, have you thought about how incredible it is? These big mammals can go without eating or drinking for months, sometimes while birthing and nursing cubs, yet wake up without bedsores or weakened muscles! This is why the physiology of bears, including that of giant pandas and polar bears, has been a hot field of research.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern U.S. is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern US is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

Although all female bears seclude themselves in dens to give birth to cubs, not all bears enter dens for long periods of time. There’s even variation within species in whether or not individual bears remain in dens or for how long. Researchers have found that in general, bears spend long periods in dens not to avoid cold temperatures, but to reduce their metabolic requirements when there is not enough food to survive environmental conditions. So, in the southern part of their range where their energy balance can remain positive, individual brown bears, Asiatic black bears, and American black bears may not den except to give birth. At last year’s meeting of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (see post, A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), Lorraine Scotson and Dave Garshelis reported that some sun bears might den for periods of time in the most northern parts of their range, meaning that non-reproductive denning may occur among at least half of the world’s bear species.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The giant panda is one bear species that has not been known to den in response to a relative lack of food, and perhaps it cannot do so. During the rare times when all the bamboo plants in an area have flowered and then died, the giant pandas have left the area in search of food; they have not entered dens. Perhaps this is because a bamboo die-off is unpredictable from the giant panda’s point of view, or perhaps this is because a giant panda eating bamboo cannot build up sufficient energy reserves to be able to wait out the lean time in a den, or maybe both factors play a role.

Adult polar bears also do not enter dens solely to avoid food shortages. Pregnant polar bears do spend prolonged periods of time in dens, but biologists think other adult polar bears don’t do so. However, polar bears in some populations regularly fast for extended periods when sea ice conditions don’t allow them to hunt. As for other bears, anything that causes a polar bear to expend more energy, whether inside or outside of a den, or to fast for a longer period of time, makes it less likely that the bear will survive. Climate change is doing just that by reducing the amount of sea ice available to polar bears: the bears expend more energy and go without eating for a longer period of time, creating a great challenge for the conservation of this species (see Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi Ton Teiow).

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

The Bear Specialist Group’s Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow recently made a visit to the northern US, where he found plenty of snow but little food for bears. After a short stay in this area, which receives an average of 45 inches of snow per year, the ambassador returned (fled?) back to sunny San Diego, where the last measurable snow fell on the city in 1967. The odds are good that Ambassador Mi will not be snow camping in San Diego any time soon.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Courtship in Front of the Camera.


Yun Zi and Hammock Update

Here's another view of the new artificial tree.

Here’s another view of the new artificial tree.

It’s been great to see giant panda Yun Zi’s exhibit go through so many changes in such a short time, and we are not done yet! He will get a hammock. His old one is badly torn up—they don’t last forever with all the use they get. Our Exhibits Team is on the job making a new one, but we have to be patient. They are extremely busy with projects all around the San Diego Zoo. Also, as keepers, we need to find the perfect place to hang the hammock so he will both use it and remain visible for visitors.

It’s been an experience to see Yun Zi sleep at the top of his 15-foot tree—now he can see his mom and baby brother. He is also enjoying the new location of his “lounge chair,” and the guests can now see him up close. Tomorrow, our Horticulture Team is going to help us add new plants and sod to both exhibits. Yun Zi is also continuing his blood-draw training, so we will be able to get a blood sample without using anesthesia. He is excelling with all his training.

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


Blood Sample from Gao Gao

Gao Gao doing what he does best--eating!

Gao Gao doing what he does best–eating!

I was motivated to attempt my first blog post after seeing some comments and questions in the giant panda blog about “taking a blood sample” to ensure that our pandas our healthy. What a great opportunity to share with our panda fans the work we do in the clinical labs at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

Our veterinarians determine when blood (or urine or feces) should be collected from animals, such as the giant pandas. Reasons could be for a health checkup or before anesthesia or to investigate a potential health issue. One of the analyses performed on the blood sample is called a CBC (or complete blood count). The sample collected from Gao Gao during his exam last month was sent to the Clinical Laboratory at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine to be analyzed.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

The CBC includes a careful look at the white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and packed cell volume. White blood cells are the cells that protect us from disease and foreign materials. The number of white blood cells counted in the blood can help determine if the animal is fighting an infection. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body, and a low number of red blood cells may reflect anemia. An adequate number of platelets ensure that the body’s clotting mechanism is normal. The packed cell volume (PCV or hematocrit) helps the veterinarians determine if the animal is dehydrated, fighting a disease, or is losing blood somewhere.

The laboratory technicians also put a drop of blood on a glass slide and smear it out to make a nice thumbprint shape. After we put the slide in a special stain, we are able to look at the cells under the microscope. We then report to the veterinarians what we see. Certain cell shapes and colors can indicate whether or not the animal is healthy. We can also see if there are enough platelets present and if there are any parasites in the blood. Data from these tests, among others, complete the CBC.

All of this information helps our veterinarians quickly assess the health of an individual animal. During Gao Gao’s last exam, his CBC was normal for adult giant pandas, and he was returned to his exhibit a happy panda!

Niki Zarcades is a clinical laboratory technician at the San Diego Zoo.


Panda Cub: Time to Vote!

Vote on a name for our panda cub!

Our panda cub was more interested in walking and moving than having his weight and measurements taken during his 10th weekly exam this morning. He was also very vocal, seeming to object to those trying to hold him still for measurements. However, the sound of his bleating didn’t disrupt his mother’s breakfast, although Bai Yun was within hearing range of the exam room.

The 12-week-old giant panda’s newfound mobility made it challenging to take precise measurements of his length. But using a larger scale ensured the accuracy of his weight: 7.7 pounds (3.5 kilograms). His girth is growing, too; his chest measured 14.9 inches around and his abdomen measured 15.7 inches. The cub’s physical exam showed he is developing as expected and is in the same ranges as the other five pandas born here. He also received his second set of vaccines: rabies and canine distemper. Similar to his first vaccination round, the cub seemed unfazed by the needle. View more images from the exam in our Panda Photo Gallery. Video is now posted below.

Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for! Public voting for the panda cub’s name begins online today. There are 6 choices for you to vote on, narrowed down from more than 7,000 name suggestions received last month.

The names up for vote are:

Qi Ji (Qíjī), which means miracle. The Chinese characters are 奇迹

Yu Di (Yǔdī), which means raindrop. The Chinese characters are 雨滴

Da Hai (Dàhǎi), which means big ocean/big sea. The Chinese characters are 大海

Xiao Liwu (Xiǎo lǐwù), which means little gift. The Chinese characters are 小礼物

Yong Er (Yǒng er), which means brave son. The Chinese characters are 勇儿

Shui Long (Shuǐlóng), which means water dragon. The Chinese characters are 水龙

If you’d like to hear how a name is pronounced, we suggest you visit Google Translate: http://translate.google.com where you can copy a name’s Chinese characters, paste it into Google Translate, and hear it from a Chinese speaker. Ah, technology!

Voting will take place online until 5 p.m. PST on Tuesday, October 30. The voting site allows one vote per email address. The name receiving the most votes will become the cub’s name. The San Diego Zoo follows the Chinese cultural tradition of naming the giant panda after it is 100 days old. The winning name of our panda cub will be announced on Tuesday, November 13, during a public ceremony at the Zoo. More details about the naming ceremony will be available as the date gets closer.

Now, get on out and vote!

Click on chart to enlarge.


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…

Click to enlarge



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.


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.


Night Watch: Mission Accepted

Can you start to see the cub’s panda colors?

Being a relief mammal keeper can be difficult. You need to be trained to work in multiple areas, remember all the safety protocols, and know how to identify individual animals, as well as build a relationship with those animals so that you work well with them and have the ability to notice when something is out of the ordinary. However, being a relief keeper also has benefits. You have the opportunity to work with a variety of animals in different areas of the San Diego Zoo, assist with training new behaviors or maintain existing ones, and be there to help wherever and whenever the department needs you. When I found out I was needed to help monitor our pregnant panda, Bai Yun, for signs of labor and later to monitor Mom and cub’s well-being, I accepted the mission. After all, it is my job! Once I found out that mission would take place overnight, from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., by myself for two weeks, my mind began racing. Would I be able to stay up all night? If something went wrong, how quickly could someone back me up? Would I be able to stay up all night? How well can I work all the camera equipment?

All of those anxious feelings quickly turned to excitement about what I was going to be a part of. How many people can say that their job required them to spend 80 hours monitoring a mother panda and her brand new cub?! What an amazing 80 hours it has been! Sure, much of the time was spent watching Bai Yun sleep in the den, but all of those hours were worth it when I was fortunate to be the only keeper on duty the first time Bai Yun left the den, giving me and anyone else watching Panda Cam the very first look at the new cub! I will never forget that moment: Monday, July 30, at 9:10 p.m.

I noticed Bai Yun re-positioning a lot, then all of a sudden she stood up and walked out of the den, leaving the cub flailing about and squawking. I was so excited but had to do my best to contain myself in order to do my job and gather as much information as possible. First, note the time; second, work the camera to get a good look at the cub; and finally, try to figure out where Bai Yun left, why, and what time she returned. Somehow I was able to accomplish all that while being in absolute amazement of what I was witnessing. I had been hearing the tiny cub off and on, but now I was able to see it and, more importantly, see that it was doing well. Of course, Bai Yun has been a mother five times before, but I wasn’t there for those cubs; this was my first time seeing her with a newborn, watching her enormous paws and mouth so carefully embrace this 4-ounce being, and it was unforgettable.

Since that unveiling of her cub, I have had several more opportunities to see it, as well as witness her gentle care, yet every time feels like the first. While it has been a great couple of weeks sitting in front of monitors, logging hours of observations, and being part of a new life, it is time to get back to my regular schedule of more physically demanding work wherever the department needs me. I get to work in the sun again with all the other amazing animals I have missed. Being a relief keeper is a tough job, but as they say, somebody has to do it. I’m happy that somebody is me!

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


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.