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Panda Cub: Answers

Can he get any cuter?

Can he get any cuter?

During my visit with the Panda Team after Xiao Liwu’s exam (see post Panda Exam: Behind the Scenes), I had a chance to ask some of the questions panda fans sent in and have compiled the answers here. The best news? Xiao Liwu is doing great! He measured 34.6 inches (88 centimeters) from nose to tail, and his tail is 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) long. His size compares to that of sister Su Lin at this age. His claws became hard after just a few weeks and are now quite sharp! There may be another exam or two, depending upon Xiao Liwu’s willingness to participate. So far, he has been the most cooperative of the cubs, which is why we’ve been able to do so many exams with him. Once the exams stop, he probably won’t have one again until he is moved to another facility or is old enough to breed; any required exams will be done under anesthesia. Yun Zi hasn’t had an exam since his cub days.

And what about Bai Yun? She is the picture of health as well! Her appetite is in full bloom, as it usually is this time of year. She is not exhibiting any symptoms associated with arthritis or any other condition one might associate with an older bear. Keepers were surprised to learn that some panda fans consider her to be “cranky” with the cub, as they see her as a content mother bear.

For those who have a thing for paws, here's a close-up view of Xiao Liwus' hind foot.

For those who have a thing for paws, here’s a close-up view of Xiao Liwus’ hind foot.

Xiao Liwu’s continued weight gain indicates that he is getting enough milk from his mother. Although our keepers don’t witness nursing bouts, it is obvious the cub is well fed. He is weighed twice a week, and the Panda Team keeps an eye on his growth curve. The cub is eating apples when he can get them; he has to be fast, as Bai Yun likes apples, too! He also has been nibbling on the hard leaf eater biscuits, and keepers are considering soaking them a bit to make them easier for the cub to chew. In China, young bamboo shoots arrive in the springtime, just when young cubs are ready to start sampling it. Pretty neat, eh?

Now, about those falls. The substrate in both the exhibit and the garden room is comprised of lomax, rather than dirt. Lomax is much softer than dirt, so when cubbie falls, and he will, it’s not on concrete or hard-packed dirt. When he falls, he may land on his feet, his side, or his cute little bottom, but panda cubs are born stuntmen: they know how to fall and roll to prevent injury. None of our cubs, including Mr. Wu, has EVER cried out after a fall. NEVER. If he were to cry, it would sound like a loud chirp. A fun story: there was a bird in the area that made a sound similar to a cub’s distress chirp. Every time the bird made this sound, Bai Yun would rush to Xiao Liwu, who was usually sleeping in the moat, to make sure he was okay. Bai’s ears are always on the alert, perked up for any indication that her cub may need help.

I'm diligently jotting down Mr. Wu's measurements for nutritionist Jennifer Parsons. The green door leads to the cub's bedroom; the fenced door opens into the garden room.

I diligently noted Mr. Wu’s measurements for nutritionist Jennifer Parsons. The green door leads to the cub’s bedroom; the door to the left opens into the garden room.

Keepers describe Bai Yun’s parenting style with Xiao Liwu as “more relaxed” and say she was much rougher with Yun Zi than they have seen with Xiao Liwu. If he needs her for help getting out of a tight situation or to nurse, the cub gives a soft cry. She has not yet dunked him in the pond, which has a few inches of water in it. When he is older, he may see Yun Zi or Gao Gao when passing through the tunnel system that connects the various exhibit and bedroom spaces, but he will most likely not be given access to look at them through the howdy gate, as males are not tolerant of each other.

When Xiao Liwu and Bai Yun go off exhibit for the day, they spend their time in the garden room, sun room, and bedroom areas, and usually sleep on the platform in the garden room. Although some fans have asked if an infrared light can be set up for nighttime viewing, we think that for now we’ll give our mother and son some privacy. Maybe for the next cub….

And how does our newest cub compare to his siblings? Keepers say Xiao Liwu is unique in that he is so comfortable in his surroundings and handles new situations very well. He is a tolerant, confident, and independent young rascal who really seems to enjoy the company of his keepers. He is curious and playful and has already started target training (touching his nose to a target for a reward) much earlier than his brothers and sisters. This is probably due to his love of apples and ear scritches from his keepers, which are used as the rewards! During my time with the Panda Team, I could tell that he is well loved and well cared for, by both his mother and his keepers. What more could a little guy ask for?

Debbie Andreen is a blog moderator and associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

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Through the Bear Lens

Xiao Liwu is learning how to be a bear while being unbearably cute!

Xiao Liwu is learning how to be a bear while being unbearably cute!

Panda cubs undergo a pretty amazing transformation in their life. They are completely dependent upon their mother for safety, nutrition, warmth, and comfort. It’s fairly easy to project human emotions to what we see taking place in the den in those early weeks: mother bear is so careful with, and attentive to, her cub, appearing to be the perfect image of a loving mother. The fact is that without her careful attention, the panda cub would not survive.

Pandas start out as very tiny, helpless individuals, unable to thermoregulate on their own. Their eyes and ears are sealed closed. Because they only grew in utero for about 50 days, many of the cub’s biological systems are not fully developed at the time of birth, and the cub needs many weeks of postpartum growth before it can see, hear, and thermoregulate. A panda cub would die without the diligent care of its mother, and her behavior is finely tuned by millions of years of evolution to ensure the survival of her young. It may look like love, but to a bear, a mother’s behavior pattern is more simply defined as a necessity.

The cubs grow rapidly. Xiao Liwu, so far the smallest of our six cubs, has increased his body weight approximately 25-fold in his first 175 days. Small as he is, he far outpaces human growth patterns, in which the average infant increases its body weight by only about 3-fold in the same time period. Body weight is not the only area in which a human comparison doesn’t hold: his physical development has also proceeded well along a bear-typical pattern. At less than six months of age, Xiao Liwu can fully explore his exhibit. He can climb to the bottom of the moat or the top of the den structure. Soon, he’ll be scaling the heights of the trees in his space.

To endure these climbs, pandas must be capable of falling and shaking it off; I’ve seen youngsters fall from the top of 40-foot trees in the enclosures of China’s Wolong Breeding Base, only to bounce, roll, and shake it off. Our trees don’t approach that height, and Xiao Liwu will be able to withstand a fall from them with little repercussion. He won’t be the first of our cubs to bounce.

As Liwu has grown, his relationship with his mother has changed. He no longer needs her regular attention, as his fur and body fat afford him the protection from the elements he needs to deal with cold or damp. He no longer feeds every two to three hours, so his mother need not worry about providing him access to her mammary glands so frequently. Even so, this growing baby needs an increasing quantity of milk each day, as his body and brain need fuel to develop. Bai Yun must meet his growing nutritional requirements while attending to her own. At this time, Liwu is focused on exploring his new, interesting life outside the den, and Bai Yun is focused on eating for two.

In the wild, a panda mother who did not take seriously the need to consume copious amounts of bamboo would risk the life of her cub and perhaps herself. Bai Yun is not in the wild, of course, but her behavior is constrained by her evolutionary past, and she takes her feeding time seriously. Do not be alarmed if you see her resist the cub’s attempts at social play while she feeds, or if she blocks him from access to her food. It is her job to eat. If he is getting in the way of her getting her job done, she will let him know. It may appear to the human eye that Bai Yun is being stubborn or unkind, but to a bear, she is just taking care of business.

Bai Yun does make time for play with her offspring. Social play with pandas, and with all bears, can look quite rough. These animals are equipped with claws and teeth that appear menacing when exposed. But exposure of teeth does not mean Bai Yun is growling at her cub (she has, not once in her years in San Diego, ever been noted to growl outside of a social encounter with an adult male). It is simply her version of a “play face,” a well-documented aspect of social play among mammals. It looks intimidating because we are human, and we are interpreting her behavior through a human lens. But Liwu is better able to read her play signals. What’s more, please recall that the Panda Cam offers no opportunity for you to hear the play sessions. What you don’t know is: play bouts are typically silent. No squalling or complaining from the cub means he is content with the play session. Bai Yun is not hurting him; he is instead getting something positive out of that interaction. Reading the signs through a bear lens lends itself to a different interpretation of this play than a human lens can provide.

Bai Yun has raised five cubs to the sub-adult stage with great success; all indications are that Liwu is on a healthy trajectory as well. We have no indication—not one—that this cub is not thriving. His weight, like some of his siblings, has plateaued at points. Yet the overall weight trajectory is on the increase. His behavioral development is strong, even advanced when compared with some of his siblings (Yun Zi comes to mind). He is content and relaxed. And Bai Yun is in excellent condition, maintaining a weight above 100 kilograms. Everything suggests that things are going well for Liwu and his mother. Reading the signs through a bear lens, our staff couldn’t be more pleased with our pandas’ progress.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Big Changes for Little Bears.

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Ten Panda Questions

panda_yz_1-12-10dHere are some questions posed by our panda blog post readers, along with answers…

Question #1
I have had the wonderful experience of watching the movies of the other zoos where the pandas are. Seen the little cubs, many all together playing, and tussling, and generally having fun and exercise. So I have noticed that Yun Zi (roly poly) has nothing to play with, but the other pandas have many things to occupy them, besides each other…

Pandas are normally solitary, but all of our bears have enrichment to keep them active and, more important, to keep their mind active. We give our adult bears puzzle boxes filled with biscuits, and every bear has a climbing apparatus. Our goal here at the San Diego Zoo is to have an exhibit that is as natural as possible, and though we may not have the same forms of climbing structures as other zoos, we have gotten great feedback from all of our animals when it comes to their health, appetite, and activity level. Every morning Yun Zi is given either a ball or pine cones, and we even have a hanging ball for him as well. We know he looks to be sleeping all day, but he does get some good exercise in. On one of his last exams, we could feel those muscles in his legs, especially his front legs. He hasn’t been climbing too long, but as he gains confidence in the trees he will go higher and play more in the trees. We are always thinking up new ways to keep our bears active, and we always make sure that our young Yun Zi has something to keep him busy, and Mom always helps us with that!

Question #2
Is there such a thing as a baby panda concussion, and do you check him out thoroughly when you weigh him or after times you become aware that he may have hit his head rather hard?

Seeing cubs take a fall, and seeing how rough Mom can be with them, can be startling at first. This is the third cub I’ve watched grow up from birth, and I can assure you that this is normal. These guys are incredibly tough, but we do, of course, check our cub to make sure that everything is going well. Baby pandas can fall from great distances out of trees without getting hurt, and I’ve seen Bai Yun get very effective with her “correction.” Important things we listen for are vocalizations from the cub letting Mom know that something hurts or that she may be getting too rough. So far we haven’t gotten any vocalizations or body language that he is hurt or that something is wrong, and our vets are always on standby. When we have our exams, the vets look at responses from the cub to make sure that he’s responding quickly and accurately.

Question #3
I’ve seen Yun Zi scratching like a dog and wonder if fleas are a problem for pandas?

Yun Zi likes to roll around in the leaves, mud, dirt, and even mulch, so scratching isn’t too unexpected. All of our animals are checked for fleas, and we’ve really never had flea problems with the pandas. Great question, though!

Question #4
As I watch Mom and little Yun Zi roll around in the sawdust, I was wondering how they bathe and keep themselves clean. Do they groom themselves like a cat? Does mom groom Zi?

Giant pandas bathe themselves by dust bathing. We give them fresh piles of soil, even wood shavings, and they will roll around, completely covering themselves till sometimes they look like black bears. They get up, shake it all off, and go about their day. Females bathe their cubs by licking them, which is why our cub sometimes look pink. Bai Yun, our adult female, gets leafeater biscuits, which are a pink reddish color, at every meal, and she may clean the baby right after.

Question #5
The Full Moon is due the end of the month; do the pandas show any unusual behavior at this time like some humans do?

Honestly, we’ve never seen any difference in behavior. But when a female is close to her estrus…that’s a different story!

Question #6
I imagine that pandas don’t all sound alike and have many different tones to express themselves. Would that be true, or just speculation? If you were only able to rely on their voice, without reading their body language, would you be able to interpret when they’re feeling distressed vs. having fun, or when they’re mad?

Giant pandas have 11 different vocalizations that we have heard, recorded, and established meaning to, which helps our research and keeper team. When the cub plays, we really don’t hear anything unless Mom gets too rough, and when that happens we hear more of a whining sound. When he is unhappy about Mom correcting him, we hear what sounds like a bark or yelp. When Mom is talking to us, letting us know she’s ready for breakfast, she will bleat to us (sounds like a goat), and when she calls to the cub she will bleat as well, but it’s much deeper.

Question #7
I’m so curious about whether you all have insights into why it seems so satisfying to a panda to lay with his or her head hanging down over the platform or tree limb. I have been watching Bai Yun and Yun Zi daily since Yun Zi’s birth in August. Everything about them intrigues me, but this pose looks so intensely satisfying to them. Is it learned? An inherent physical need? It’s so “panda.”

I’ve been working at the Giant Panda Research Station for about five years now, and I think every one of them has a different form of it, but yes, they do tend to hang their head down. Bai Yun has always done it since I first saw her, and it might just be a way to lay her head as she sleeps. Gao Gao rarely hangs his head, from what I’ve seen.

Question #8
Where are the toys we panda fans bought our baby panda? I remember he had a blue ball and a bamboo toy when he was younger, and didn’t seem super interested, but what about now? What happened to them? He needs some toys!

All of the panda toys are still at the Giant Panda Research Station and are used on a daily basis. We try not to put the same thing in with the cub every day so that he doesn’t get bored with it or uninterested. Just like any child, though, there are days when he just wants something different from what we gave him, and, like a child, he does hide them in his exhibit sometimes and makes it difficult for us to get them back. But I promise we still have them and use them every day, especially when he has an exam–anything to keep him still, or at least in one place for our vets!

Question #9
We all know the noises that pandas make, like when Yunior was in his exams. But when he and mommy are playing, does he makes noises at her, and, better yet, does she at him? They look like they do, and I have always wondered if there are noises to go along with the playtimes.

We really haven’t heard a lot of vocalization from Yun Zi during playtime with Mom. With exams, though, he sort of whines at us to let us know he doesn’t want to do them, and we do our best to find a toy to keep him happy. Bai Yun really only calls to the cub when she’s trying to get him up in the morning, and she’ll call to him by making a bleat that’s deeper than her normal bleat.

Question #10
I do want to know if Su Lin redecorated again the other day. It certainly appeared that another tree had tipped over.

Su Lin redecorated the one tree that fell over, but since then there hasn’t really been any more remodeling. She is very good at it, though!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.