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giant panda

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Thunder and Lightning

The Zoo's newest giraffe calf, born May 5, seemed to get a real kick out of the thunder and rain last week.

The Zoo’s newest giraffe calf, born May 5, seemed to get a real kick out of the thunder and rain last week.

Here at the San Diego Zoo, our animals’ welfare is number one! If an animal appears to be having a difficult time, we will do out best to make sure that we can make them comfortable and figure out what may be the cause of any uneasiness. So with that being said, the storms that came through San Diego last week gave a few of our animals something new to say the least. On Tuesday, when the thunder began to move in, little Mr. Xiao Liwu decided that not only did he not like it, but that he wanted to seek shelter…inside!

Of course, animals in the wild are going to deal with this without the luxury of having a nice, climate controlled bedroom to run into. Since giant pandas are naturally found anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation, they deal with a whole multitude of weather conditions including snow and extreme humidity. But our Mr. Wu has had a different life experience.

The day of the storm, I was also giving a tour around the Zoo and animals everywhere had their own responses to smelling the rain and hearing the thunder. A particularly special treat was watching our baby giraffe running around and kicking her legs out playing in the falling drops. I’ve always told guests that the best time to go to the Zoo or even the Safari Park is right before or after a storm. All the animals can smell the change in the air and it’s always fun to watch them.

Over the 10 years I’ve been working around the pandas, I’ve had the opportunity to witness interesting behavior and great moments with the bears. One of those is panda cubs in the rain, and the aftermath. All of our animals have shelter in their enclosure so that if it begins to rain hard, they can get out of the rain and still be visible to the public. Panda cubs have really never disappointed in their playtime in the mud. Just as human kids like to jump in puddles and make a mess, panda cubs love to slide, roll, and jump in puddles and mud. One of my favorite memories of Yun Zi (born 2009) was a morning I had put him in the “garden room” of Bai Yun’s indoor area so that I could clean the bedroom. It had rained a little and as I was finishing up, here came Yun Zi, dripping with mud. Total “boy” move; he had rolled in the mud and had clearly had a blast.

So, keep your eye peeled for those awesome moments, and again try a visit just before or after a storm. You’ll be amazed at what you see the animals doing!

Anastasia Jonilionis is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Panda Cubs: Interesting Individuals.

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Panda Cubs: Interesting Individuals

caption

At almost three years old, Xiao Liwu is a bundle of adorable energy!

 

In my previous blog, Meanwhile, in Panda Canyon, I mentioned that Xiao Liwu is “so different from his siblings…” Many of you have asked me to share more about the ways Mr. Wu is different, so here we go. To give you a good idea of what I mean, let’s take a “refresher course” in all the cubs born at the San Diego Zoo.

In August of 1999, Bai Yun, gave birth to her first cub Hua Mei as a result of artificial insemination from Shi Shi, the first male in our breeding program. As the very first giant panda cub to survive in the US, Hua Mei was a new adventure for our care staff and veterinarian team. Our nursery staff was on standby, but day after day, Bai Yun amazed us with her attentiveness to and care of her cub. Hua Mei was a typical, curious cub that became playful with her mother as she grew. The world watched her grow and fell in love with her—and her mom—via Panda Cam.

Gao Gao, our current breeding male, came to San Diego in 2003. He had never bred before and was a bit smaller than we anticipated, but Gao Gao rose to the challenge, and we had our first successful mating followed by another successful live birth on August 3, 2003. Named Mei Sheng, the first male cub for Bai Yun kept up with Hua Mei in weight in the beginning, even though he was a little smaller measurement-wise—different paternal genes can make a difference in size of an animal. Personality-wise, Mei Sheng was a little more clingy to his mom than Hua Mei, but he also had a goofy side. I remember when I first started working in Panda Canyon, he would sometimes hang upside down from tree limbs and swing. He was great fun to watch and was always putting on a great show for guests.

Our next panda cub, Su Lin, was born in 2005. She was one of our smaller kiddos, and I would definitely call her an “old soul.” She was pretty mellow, and sometimes seemed more sensitive to environmental change. Su Lin was the first cub trained to be part of the giant panda hearing study. Su Lin ended up staying at the Zoo until she was five years old, and during that time she went through her first estrus. Watching her scent mark her enclosure and even investigate her bedroom for possible denning was always interesting for guests and staff.

The birth of Zhen Zhen in 2007 brought a whole new experience for keepers! Physically, she kept up with Mei Sheng’s weight patterns as she grew, but Zhen Zhen had a little more of a feisty attitude. She had a lot of energy and used it to give Bai Yun a “hard time.” Keepers had to start training to go into her bedroom with mom sooner rather than later because with all of that energy, she would often attempt to roughhouse with keepers when they tried to gather her up to bring her in. As she got older, she still maintained a high-energy personality and was notorious for breaking tree branches from trees while bouncing on them.

An interesting side note: when Su Lin and Zhen Zhen went to China in 2010, we got reports from keepers there that their personalities had switched a bit. Zhen Zhen had mellowed out, while Su Lin now much more sure of herself, was putting on quite high-energy act for staff in China!

In 2009 Yun Zi was born. Nicknamed “Monster” as a little cub, he was ALL boy. He had a “I’m a big, tough bear” attitude even as a young cub. At the time, I was on loan as a panda keeper and was working with him five days a week. In the mornings when we would attempt to get Yun Zi “out of bed”, we would use all the amazing enrichment items that our donors had provided, but nothing seemed to work. In the end, dried leaves were the thing that got him up and moving—he liked chasing them down the tunnel that leads into the exhibit. We had another challenge at the end of each day, when we needed to get him back into the bedroom with mom. On more than one occasion, Yun Zi would be sleeping in the corner of the exhibit and we would have to carry him off exhibit. But as soon as you put him down in the bedroom, he “magically” woke up and began running around! Yun Zi was the biggest cub we have had born here at the Zoo. On more than one occasion, he was more than 2 pounds bigger than his siblings at the same age. Today, living in China, he is over 235 pounds.

And that brings us to the afternoon of July 29, 2012 when a little bear named Xiao Liwu was born. After five kids, Bai Yun was well seasoned for this cub and often when we would watch her you could tell that she was all about letting this kid figure things out for himself. “Wu Bear” has been very independent and what he may have lacked in size he has more than made up for in focus. He has always been a mellow cub, and as keepers have said many times, “They broke the mold after Wu Bear!” When we began training him to cooperate with having his blood pressure taken, he was calm, confident, and extremely relaxed. Not much fazes him, and for the most part—from a keeper’s point of view—he has been the easiest cub to work with.

Xiao Liwu will be turning three years old soon, and with that age comes a whole new set of behaviors and energy bursts. Just the other day, I was watching him put on quite a show for guests, running around and breaking off branches from the bushes in the enclosure. He will continue to be fun to observe and has a very bright future ahead of him—just like his older siblings.

2012 PandaCubGrowth

This chart shows Xiao Liwu’s early develoment compared to his siblings. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Anastasia Jonilionis is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Meanwhile, In Panda Canyon.

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Meanwhile, in Panda Canyon…

Handsome Gao Gao is currently on exhibit with his beloved 'boo.

Handsome Gao Gao is currently on exhibit with his beloved ‘boo, making his many fans very happy!

As we are fast approaching June and our busiest time of the year, I wanted to give all of you a quick update on the pandas. Everyone is doing well! Bai Yun is still in the North Classroom exhibit, and will be until further notice. At this time we are not able to give an answer to the ongoing question of Bai Yun’s maternity status.

However, we may know within the next few weeks if we are expecting another cub. Due to Bai Yun’s age and the very different breeding season that we had this year, none of us really know what to expect. Her last weight came in around 236.3 pounds (107.3 kilograms)—a good weight jump for her but again, it doesn’t mean she is pregnant. Giant pandas can go through pseudo or “false” pregnancies, in which the females show a number of behaviors and other indications leading us to believe they are expecting—but they are not!  In that case, the ultrasound comes into play. We will let you know as we gain more information, we will let you know.

Gao Gao is also doing very well. He is on exhibit and letting his fans have a peek! Currently weighing in at  168.7 pounds (76.7 kilograms), he has been eating well. He gets his blood pressure taken each week and continues to do well, but will be taking a break for a bit while the crate  for Bai Yun’s ultrasounds is prepared.

Xiao Liwu is terrific! Running around and putting on a great show for everyone visiting, and beginning to fill out. Currently weighing in at 135 pounds (61.8 kilograms). He is so different from his siblings, and it has really thrown us for a loop. With the five previous cubs, we have been able to anticipate the different stages that they go through. With this little guy, we have been surprised at every turn and really cannot wait to see what comes next!

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Heartfelt Thanks to Our Invaluable and Inspiring Volunteers

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

April 12- 18 is National Volunteer Appreciation Week, and in the spirit of the celebration, we want to shout out to the world how truly invaluable and inspiring San Diego Zoo Global’s volunteers are. At the current time, we have over 1200 active volunteers in our system, but over the course of the year that often swells to over 2,000. The ebb and flow comes as extra help is requested for an event or fieldwork—and we always have eager hands ready to help. These amazing people give freely of their energy, expertise, and time—we recently hit one million hours of recorded service!

Our gifted volunteers support all of the staff, from keepers to educators to researchers and beyond! They make enrichment items for the animals, strip the bamboo used to make giant panda bread for Gao Gao, answer “Dear San Diego Zoo” letters from children around the world, help guests find their way at the Zoo and the Park (and give them information that makes their visit even more enjoyable), and more. And if you are one of the 16 million viewers that love our live animal cams, you have volunteers to thank for finding and zooming in on the special moments you can’t see anywhere else.

The dictionary defines the word dedicated as having very strong support for or loyalty to a person, group, or cause. And that certainly describes our volunteers, who freely engage in San Diego Zoo Global’s mission and vision to end extinction. “Words cannot describe how amazing our volunteers are,” says Tammy Rach, Senior Manager, Volunteer Services. “SDZG Volunteers support all of our staff, engage in our mission and vision, and greatly improve the guest experience. They also contribute ideas and funds in support of our conservation efforts, and share their passion and dedication throughout the community with everyone they encounter.”

Through their dedication, energy, and commitment, San Diego Zoo Global volunteers are both invaluable and inspirational. They are truly heroes for wildlife!

To learn more about becoming a San Diego Zoo Global Volunteer, click here.

Wendy Perkins is a staff writer and blog monitor for San Diego Zoo Global.

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Adult Giant Pandas at San Diego Zoo Have First Breeding Encounter of the Season

Bai Yun and Gao Gao are a successful mating pair—they have five offspring together.

Bai Yun and Gao Gao are a successful breeding pair. They have produced five offspring together.

This morning, giant pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao were given physical access to each other for their first breeding attempt since 2012. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research have been monitoring the hormone levels of Bai Yun, waiting for her to show signs of estrus. Animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo watch for physical cues, like scent marking, and listening to the vocalizations of both bears.

The main panda viewing area at the Zoo was closed this morning and the online Panda Cam turned off while staff observes the bears for breeding behavior.

After seeing all the cues indicating that both bears are interested in breeding and getting test results of Bai Yun’s hormone levels, keepers opened the doors between the main viewing exhibits, allowing the bears to have contact with each other. Keepers are hopeful that the pandas will continue to show signs of interest in each other, which will prompt additional time together for breeding.

Female giant pandas only experience their estrus once a year and it only last for 48 to 72 hours. Staff will not know if this breeding season will yield a cub until a possible birth would be imminent, in approximately July 2015. The San Diego Zoo has a record of success with six cubs being born in San Diego since 1999.  Giant pandas are considered to be critically endangered in the wild.

Photo taken on March 10, 2015, by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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