panda cub


Weaning Xiao Liwu: Conflict over Calories

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Over the last week or so, we have allowed our giant panda mother-cub pair access to more space to see what kind of behavioral pattern develops. We’ve watched Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu closely during this time, both with formalized behavioral observations and informal sessions by keepers and staff. What we have seen is rather typical for this stage in their lives together. Bai Yun is food-focused, moving around both exhibits in search of the choicest bamboo and other snacks. Xiao Liwu is also becoming increasingly food-focused, though interested only in bamboo. When he is finished eating, he follows his mother around, like a little shadow.

Interestingly, this cub is not ingesting much kibble or produce. This makes him rather unique among his siblings in that they were motivated to feed on these calorie-dense items. Xiao Liwu, on the other hand, is limiting all of his non-milk calories to bamboo, which makes it that much more important that he gets plenty of his leafy greens. Since he is nursing very infrequently, probably less than once each day, his bamboo intake is meeting most of his energetic needs.

This is where a conflict arises. Bai Yun is quite determined to meet her caloric needs as well, and though she ingests a lot of produce and kibble, she’s also keen to exploit the bamboo resources we provide. Right now, she has a little competition for the choicest bits, and we have witnessed several bouts of wrestling over bamboo between mother and cub as a result. She’ll even steal the cub’s bamboo and hold him at bay, squealing, while she munches on the remnants of what Wu was working on. Though we provide the two bears with plenty of food, sometimes Wu loses out to his mother with respect to the bamboo he wants. Although he can usually walk away and find something else to snack on, we wonder to what degree his ability to meet his caloric needs is inhibited by his mother.

When not feeding, Xiao Liwu moves about the exhibits in fairly close proximity to his mother. Bai Yun, on the other hand, has not been observed following her son. This is a pattern we have observed with past panda cubs. If the little ones had their way, weaning separations would be delayed by months, or even years! Who wants to give up on the milk bar and the built-in playmate? But Bai Yun is less interested in fulfilling these roles as time goes by. Rejection of nursing bouts is something we have seen off and on for some time. And play bouts are not always welcome. For example, we recently witnessed a bout in which Wu bounded onto his mother with a sudden leap, resulting in Bai Yun biting down hard enough on him to elicit a loud yelp. This brought the play bout to a skidding halt, which may have been the result Bai Yun was going for. As this kind of interaction becomes more common, it reinforces for us the importance of considering momma bear in the weaning equation.

The indicators suggest to us that we should move ahead with our weaning protocol. For this reason, you will notice that Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will now have periods of separation, each one housed in one of the main exhibits for a few hours each day. The bears will be separated in the morning and given their own foods to chow down on. The cub will not have to worry about his mother stealing his breakfast, and Bai Yun won’t have to worry about play bouts interrupting her meal. We’ll bring them back together about lunchtime and repeat the process the following day. We will, as usual, be watching closely to see how the bears adapt. Stay tuned to this channel for further updates as the process unfolds.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu.


Xiao Liwu: A Gentle Soul

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

I spoke with long-time panda keeper Kathy Hawk to get an update on our youngest panda, Xiao Liwu, who is now one year old. She described him as a gentle soul—at least so far! “He’s different from his siblings. He’s very mellow around us.” Keepers are still able to enter the exhibit when he is in there, and he doesn’t treat them like a toy to play with or a tree to try to climb like our previous cubs have done.

Kathy explained that the “light bulb” has gone off in his head, and Xiao Liwu now seems to understand that a delicious honey water treat is his reward if he comes when keepers call him. As such, “Mr. Wu” is more consistently starting to shift from his exhibit enclosure to his bedroom when asked. Here’s how it works: a keeper stands at the fence line and calls his name. If Mr. Wu comes over, whether down from the tree or from playing or sleeping, and touches his nose to a target, the keeper clicks a clicker to let him know he did as asked and rewards him with sips of honey water. Kathy said our little man LOVES that honey water! However, Xiao Liwu is “still a baby,” and, although he now understands what is asked of him, he may not always choose to comply! Sound familiar to you parents out there?

Xiao Liwu is nibbling on bamboo a bit but prefers apple slices and folivore biscuits that have been soaked in water for him. At this stage in his life, he does not compete with his mother, Bai Yun, for the biscuits or the bamboo. Mr. Wu still spends a good deal of time up in the trees, as cubs do at this age, and this does not bother keepers or his mother. Kathy has never heard Bai Yun call for him to come down!

Kathy also described that all six panda cubs she has worked with have gone through a stage where they get extra-sensitive to noise and react strongly to sudden, loud sounds by running or walking quickly, or even frothing at the mouth. Perhaps their sense of hearing becomes more acute at this age, and they react to sounds they ignored as toddlers. You may see this now with Mr. Wu, but Kathy wanted to reassure panda fans that this, too, shall pass!

Snow day for all of our pandas will be on Thursday, August 29. Approximately 30,000 pounds of snow will be blown into the exhibits early that morning, and the pandas will be released into the white stuff around 8 a.m. for Panda Cam viewers to enjoy, including some for Gao Gao. The Zoo opens at 9 a.m., and if you’re lucky enough to be here that day, do come and watch the fun!

This special snow day enrichment for our pandas was made possible by generous donors who contributed to the Zoo’s online Animal Care Wish List. There are other items on this month’s Wish List for our pandas, such as composite wood for custom-made toys, perfume, bark logs, and coconuts, starting at just $9. Other Zoo bears have added their wish list requests as well, including snowballs in $10 increments for our polar bears. Check it out!

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


Planning a Panda Snow Day

Remember Xiao Liwu's first snow day back in March?

Remember Xiao Liwu’s first snow day back in March?

On Thursday, August 29, our beloved pandas at the San Diego Zoo will receive approximately 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) of snow as part of a special enrichment surprise. Starting around 6 a.m. on Thursday, Arctic Ice Company will begin the process of blowing snow into the two main viewing exhibits.

The three pandas receiving snow are one-year-old cub Xiao Liwu and his mother, Bai Yun, who will enjoy the snow together, and the cub’s older brother, four-year-old Yun Zi, who will be exploring the snow in his exhibit. (Of course, this plan is subject to change if the little stinker—er, cub—doesn’t cooperate by shifting off exhibit when asked!) This will be Xiao Liwu’s second snow day (see Panda Cub Gets Cold Feet), and we are eager to see how the cub will react to his snowy exhibit this time. For his first snow day, Xiao Liwu was a little hesitant, but once he saw Mom enjoying the snow, he jumped in and playfully wrestled with her until he tired himself out.

These special snow-day enrichments would not be possible without our generous donors. A private donor event will be held before the exhibit opens to the public to give thanks to many of the donors who contributed to the Zoo’s online Animal Care Wish List. The Wish List is like an online gift registry for animals at the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park and can be found at sandiegozoo.org/wishlist.

The panda exhibit will be open at 9 a.m. as usual for guests to come see the panda snow day. For panda fans who aren’t able to see the bears in person, Panda Cam will be available for online viewing of snow day starting at 8 a.m., or fans can check out the Zoo’s social media channels for updates, photos, and video:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sandiegozoo
Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandiegozoo
YouTube: www.youtube.com/sdzoo

Ina Saliklis is a public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Exam 15.


Munching on Bamboo

Xiao Liwu finds a spot away from Mom to practice his bamboo-eating skills.

Xiao Liwu finds a spot away from Mom to practice his bamboo-eating skills.

As our 10-month-old panda cub becomes more and more curious about what Mom is doing with her bamboo, we are beginning to see Xiao Liwu try to pick up the leaves and maneuver them with his little paws. Although panda cubs nurse the entire 18 months they are with Mom, they typically begin eating bamboo around 12 months of age.

While we all see adults like Bai Yun eating bamboo that can be incredibly thick, cubs cannot eat the bamboo culm right away. This is, in part, because it takes some practice for them to effectively strip the outside layer of the culm. Right now, when we see the cub with bamboo, we can see that he is trying to figure out how to get a grip on the culm and find a way to grab the leaves like Mom does.

In the many years that I have been watching and taking care of the bears, I’ve noticed that Bai Yun has a pretty good system for eating her food. From far away, it looks like she wastes a lot of the culm when she strips it, but as I began cleaning her enclosures, I noticed that she does a surprisingly good job at getting the most out of her food. There are times where it looks like she is rolling the bamboo leaves into a tight wad to eat like a candy bar.

One thing I always encourage our guests to check out if they’re around while Bai Yun is eating is to watch her jaw muscles working. Even from afar, you can see the space between her ears flexing as she breaks the pieces apart. Something to observe the next time you are watching Panda Cam or here at the San Diego Zoo for a visit!

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


Mr. Wu on View

T13_0244_019It has been about a month since giant pandas Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu have moved to the main viewing exhibit, and what a fun time it has been for San Diego Zoo guests and for our little panda boy! Mr. Wu has adjusted to the new exhibit very well, spending his days exploring every inch of his new habitat, from the ground to the trees. And when he explores the trees, he goes way up high!

Panda cubs are great climbers, and in the wild, high in the trees is the best place for cubs to stay safe. Mr. Wu can be seen lounging 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) up in the pine tree throughout the day. He is a strong climber and gets up and down with ease. Keepers have also recently installed grass sod in the exhibit, and Mr. Wu is having a great time ripping up the sod and playing with sod chunks.

Xiao Liwu continues to grow like a weed and weighs about 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms). He turned nine months old today! Although he is not yet eating a lot of solid food, he does like to chew on bamboo and really enjoys applesauce. Mr. Wu is still a mellow guy with a sweet personality, and we are all enjoying seeing him grow up and become a “big bear.”

Elizabeth Simmons is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Learning Routine.


Panda Cub: Growing and Climbing

Cub blah blah

Xiao Liwu practices his climbing skills.

Over the last few weeks, we have watched Xiao Liwu as he acclimates to having people in his environment and handles being on exhibit for longer periods of time. So far he is doing extremely well: sleeps most of the morning, wakes Mom up, and begins to play. As he grows, he has become more sure of himself and has gotten more daring as he plays with his mom, Bai Yun. Each panda cub born here has been different in his or her personality and growth patterns, and it has been an amazing experience watching so many cubs grow up here at the San Diego Zoo.

As Xiao Liwu grows and becomes more confident, one thing we are going to see is much more climbing. Right now there are tree guards on the tree in the north exhibit so that keepers can keep and eye on the baby and get him inside in the afternoon. Once the cub is able to move to the main exhibit, he will have access to the outdoor area all day and access to the nice, big tree. Cubs have to begin climbing at a young age as a defense mechanism, since their mothers go off to eat for several hours of the day. Being up that high makes it less likely that another bear or leopard can reach the cub.

Another behavior that will be fun to watch is the playtime between mom and cub. Through Bai Yun’s actions, Xiao Liwu learns to defend himself. As the baby gets bigger, these actions will change accordingly.

Xiao Liwu’s exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to noon every day for right now, and we will keep you posted on when this may be extended and when the cub may move to the main enclosure. Hope to see you soon at pandas!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: First Days on View.

SNOW DAY UPDATE: Thanks to our generous Wish List supporters, we raised enough funds to have one snow day for little Xiao Liwu and his family. But we’d like to have another snow play date! Each $10 donation will go toward a second snow day for our “Little Gift” as we hope to raise more funds to have a second snow day in the summer for his first birthday! See our Wish List for details.


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.


Panda Cub: Adventurer

Let's play some more!

Ready to play some more, son?

Xiao Liwu was very active today, January 29, in Panda Trek’s north exhibit. At first he was on top of his tree stump, sleeping away in the hay as cozy as can be. He slept for at least an hour and a half. The six-month-old finally woke up and began his adventure of climbing on tree limbs and exploring in the exhibit. He tried chewing on some bamboo leaves, just as mama Bai Yun does. I always notice he tries to copy Mom as much as he can. Wu then was interested in the plants, biting at the little branches and leaves. He’s very interested in the world around him. I always notice he will try biting on different leaves and branches.

Then he wanted to play with Bai Yun, which our guests love to see! They were wrestling and playing in the bin full of hay. He practices his bear skills while playing, just like humans learn while they play! One of my favorite moments of the morning was when he would run after Bai Yun and try to bite her on her bottom. He just makes me laugh!

Sometimes he can be so stubborn with his one-track mind, but it always makes for good stories and a great experience for our guests. As the morning came to an end, Xiao Liwu enjoyed playing in the bushes exploring the flowers and leaves. This “little gift” is quite a little adventurer!

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Little Gift.


Panda Cub: Exam 19

Look what Santa brought me!

Xiao Liwu appeared to enjoy the attention and new toys he was given during his weekly exam today. The new play items included a doughnut-shaped plastic ring (perfect for panda sitting), a stick of bamboo, and the plastic ball from last week’s exam. Although sleepy when keeper Juli brought him in from the den, he soon perked up. The plastic ring was a big hit and made it easy for the Panda Team to get measurements, as the cub planted himself right in the middle of it!

“He is growing normally, and we are seeing a lot more interest in his surroundings,” said Meg Sutherland-Smith, associate director of veterinary services for the San Diego Zoo. “He saw that new toy and gravitated right to it.”

The almost five-month-old cub, who now weighs 15.4 pounds (7 kilograms), seemed quite content and only fussed when Dr. Meg opened his mouth to examine his teeth. The exam results indicated that he is growing normally, showing more movement and activity than in past weeks. With this new mobility, he is beginning to explore more of the panda living areas and has ventured outside a few times now. He should be ready for his public debut as he becomes more comfortable navigating the large exhibit space.

In the meantime, keep watching Panda Cam, as the Panda Team might put a toy or two in the den for Mr. Adorable to play with! More photos are posted in the Panda Photo Gallery.


Panda Cub: Exam 18

It’s mine! You can’t have it!

Today was our 18th cub exam, and while it’s hard to believe that Xiao Liwu gets cuter with every exam, inevitably he does! Every week. Without fail. I don’t know how he’s going to keep this up…being this cute for this long, it must take a lot of endurance.

This morning, to up the cute factor, he was given two balls, bamboo, and a limb trimmed from a tree. He’d seen the limb before, and the bamboo, but that ball…that is what kept his attention during the whole exam. He pulled it close, wrapped all his paws around it, and sat with it. It was his, and he wasn’t giving it up. Well, until he tried to climb over it or move with it, and then it would pop out of his paws and roll away. Keepers would roll it back to him and this “game” kept him engaged during almost the entire exam.

Jennifer Parsons, a nutritionist taking his measurements, had to slide her tape measure between the ball and his chin to measure his neck girth. And again, between the ball and his tummy to measure the girth of his abdomen. And while he was wrapped, content, around that ball, she was able to take measurements around his face without his usual protests. He weighed 14.5 pounds (6.6 kilograms) and is 29 inches long (74 centimeters) from nose to tail.

The exam went very quickly today because the cub was focused on his ball. Vets were able to check him over and everything looked in tip-top shape.

And because I know you’d want to know, I asked about Xiao Liwu’s public debut. And the animal care staff tell me that it boils down to this: he has to be able to climb, and he has to follow his mother consistently.

The cub has shown a slight interest in one of the small climbing structures in the sun room but hasn’t tried out any other climbing in the garden room. And right now, he’s more than content to stay in the den when Bai Yun ventures into other areas of the “panda suite” they share. This is a natural instinct in bear cubs: staying close to their mother is what keeps them safe in the wild. At the San Diego Zoo, staying close to mother is what makes it possible for keepers to get Mom and baby into and out of the exhibit.

So we wait.

Good thing he’s so dang cute!

Jenny Mehlow is a senior public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Exam 5: Say Aww.