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panda Hua Mei

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Update: Our Pandas in China

You continue to make us proud, Su Lin!

You continue to make us proud, Su Lin! Photo credit: Meghan Martin

With the arrival of spring comes some exciting news from China: panda Su Lin has bred! Seven-year-old Su Lin, who was born at the San Diego Zoo in August 2005, bred with male Yuan Yuan several times at Bi Feng Xia, and all appeared to go perfectly. We are waiting to hear whether she breeds with any more males over the next few days, and we have high hopes that this will be a successful pregnancy for Su Lin. Her first cub was born in July 2011 (see Su Lin Gives Birth!). We were also happy to receive some recent photos of Su Lin, and she looks happy and healthy and is as beautiful as ever!

Hua Mei's newest cub has even us hardened researchers saying "Awww!" Photo credit: Meghan Martin

Hua Mei’s newest cub has even us hardened researchers saying “Awww!” Photo credit: Meghan Martin

We’ve also received a recent photo of 13-year-old Hua Mei’s latest cub. As you may recall, Hua Mei was born here in August 1999 and has given birth to nine cubs over the years since she moved to China in 2004. It is such a pleasure to see Bai Yun’s newest grandcub, a girl, born in August 2012! We’ve also learned that Hua Mei and Su Lin have been neighbors at Bi Feng Xia.

Mei Sheng has also had opportunities to mate this year, but thus far he’s shown that he still has some learning to do. Even though Mei Sheng, born here in August 2003 and now nine years old, is a fully adult panda, male pandas tend to mature later than females, so there is still plenty of time left for him to become a more adept breeder.

The breeding season has been in full swing for pandas at Bi Feng Xia for about a month now, and panda females may continue to come into estrus through June. While each female only has a single estrus, and just a few days of interest in breeding, males will have opportunities to breed throughout the entire spring. We will keep you posted, and all of our fingers are crossed in hopes for a successful year there.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Make Us Proud, Su and Zhen!

Zhen Zhen

In the words of the great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, “Nothing makes the Earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance.” Recent news from China regarding the birth of Hua Mei’s eighth cub made me realize that the connection we feel for our San Diego Zoo-born pandas only grows stronger over time. And the pride we’ve all felt upon hearing this news reminds us that although we hate to see them go, we know that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will make their greatest contributions to giant panda conservation when they become part of the greater breeding population in China.

Su Lin

Su Lin and Zhen Zhen left the San Diego Zoo Friday evening, September 24, under the watchful eye of the California Highway Patrol! After being escorted by Zoo staff and the CHP, the duo left by plane to Shanghai in the early hours this morning, accompanied by Gaylene Thomas, the animal care supervisor who oversees giant pandas, and Tracy Clippinger, a senior veterinarian whom you’ll remember from many panda exams. The pandas were acclimated to their new traveling crates, as well as being next to each other, over the last several months. The crates were designed especially for these two pandas, giving them privacy and ventilation at the same time. During their voyage, the crates were placed adjacent to one another to provide them with familiar smells and sounds, while Gaylene made sure they had their favorite treats and even honey water to keep them comfortable. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will be welcomed in Shanghai by a team of experienced panda keepers and escorted to their new home at Wolong Nature Reserve Giant Panda Bi Feng Xia Base in Sichuan, China.

I think it’s safe to say that we were all lucky to have gotten to know both of these charming bears, and both of them contributed valuable information to our understanding of giant panda biology. Su Lin is the first giant panda to have contributed comprehensive data for our panda hearing study. Her patient and playful focus over the last year and a half has taught us a lot about the sensitive hearing that pandas have at certain frequencies. This important starting point will help guide our research into the impacts of human disturbance on giant pandas in the wild.

Su Lin

Su Lin’s behavioral development, from birth to weaning, was also well documented as part of our detailed behavioral studies of this critical period in a panda’s life. And of course, over the last year, Su Lin has displayed clear signs of the onset of reproductive maturity, both behaviorally and physiologically, and we have no doubt that she will go on to be an important contributor to the panda population at Bi Feng Xia, just like her big sister, Hua Mei.

Zhen Zhen also contributed important data to our studies of panda hearing, mother-cub behavior, and infant development. Her ability to participate in the hearing study illustrated well just how smart giant pandas are and how quickly even a young bear can learn a challenging cognitive task. And the data we collected on Zhen Zhen’s behavior enhanced our understanding of the normal scope of cub behavior, even in light of distinct differences in temperament.

Some folks have wondered if Bai Yun will miss Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. I think our best answer to the question is to look to what we know of panda biology: panda mothers in the wild wean their offspring when the cubs are about 18 months old. At this same point, the panda mother and cub will part and begin their separate lives. For Bai Yun, I’m sure she’ll notice the eventual absence of the scent of Su Lin and Zhen, but she said her panda “goodbye’s” long ago. Unlike Bai Yun, we have all just said our goodbyes, and we will miss these bears!

Zhen Zhen

The news from China regarding the birth of Hua Mei’s eighth cub well illustrates the potential for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen to be important conservation ambassadors for giant pandas. Hua Mei’s prolific reproductive output is good news for giant pandas; although Bai Yun’s genes are well represented in the captive population, Shi Shi’s genes are not. Hua Mei is the only known offspring of Shi Shi, so each of her cubs contributes to the genetic diversity that is so important to the conservation value of Wolong’s giant pandas. And now Su Lin and Zhen Zhen have embarked on the same journey, and again, along with Bai Yun’s genetic makeup, they bring Gao Gao with them as well. Like Shi Shi before him, Gao Gao is also unrepresented in China’s captive population of giant pandas.

In the coming years, we will continue to observe the milestones in Su Lin and Zhen Zhen’s lives, albeit at a great distance. And of course, we will share what we learn with their great “panda family”: the Panda Team, San Diego Zoo visitors, and our large family of worldwide panda fans.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas on Stand-by.

Update September 26: This morning, Gaylene informed us that the two pandas had arrived safely at their destination.

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Bai Yun through the Years

Happy 19th birthday, Bai Yun!

I remember that special day in the fall of 1996: the dream had finally happened, the San Diego Zoo had giant pandas! I had little sleep the night before our black-and-white celebrities arrived. I stayed late at the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, disinfecting bedrooms and getting things ready for our new kids. Bai was the first panda I saw in the shipping crate when she and Shi Shi arrived. As the back door of the delivery truck opened, there she was, looking curiously at me. I was in awe!

Bai checks out her new home at the San Diego Zoo, October 11, 1996.

As the days rolled into months, Bai and I became fast friends. I would spend my lunch breaks with her:she would be in the off-exhibit backyards, and I would be on the outside of the separation fence. Bai was five years old at the time and very much the comical youngster. We would interact through the fence line, and it was funny, as it seemed she would imitate everything I did! If I ran along the fence line, she would run; if I did a somersault, or bounce on all fours, Bai was with me every step of the way. Thank goodness we were behind the scenes, as someone might think the keeper has lost her mind!

Bai knows how to play! April 1997.

Bai and I have shared many events together. I remember during the early years of breeding season, male Shi Shi repeatedly rejected Bai’s friendly advances. Our Panda Team decided to precede with our alternate plan, and Bai was artificially inseminated; this procedure eventually produced our first cub, Hua Mei.

I was there the day Bai gave birth to Hua Mei. At that time, some people were skeptical about whether Bai would make a good mother. I had no doubts, as I knew her that well; she would know what to do and care for her cub. Bai has now proven herself to be an excellent mother five times to date!

Who needs a hammock? September 2001

Another story that comes to mind is when our vet staff asked us if there was a possibility we could train Bai to do ultrasound procedures. In three days, Bai learned to lie down in a squeeze cage when asked, and within a few weeks we were obtaining ultrasound pictures! How did Bai learn this behavior? Well, she imitated me while she was sitting in the cage: I laid down next to the cage, and my silly girl thought this was a new game to play! I captured this behavior using a clicker and a food reward after she did the behavior. Bai never ceases to amaze me. Since the early years, our veterinarians have been able to document the development of a growing panda fetus up to the day before birth!

Bai checks out an interesting scent, June 2003.

As I look back on the early years to the present, I still am in awe over Bai Yun. She has taught us so much about giant panda biology. Through her, researchers have been able to utilize this knowledge in efforts to better understand giant pandas in the wild and how we can protect and preserve giant panda habitats in China. Our Bai is truly the matriarch of our conservation research program here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station.

Today, September 7, our grand lady is 19 years old. She is still just as beautiful as the day she arrived in 1996, a bright-eyed beauty who still captures the hearts of everyone who sees her at the Zoo and on our Panda Cam.

Happy Birthday, “Miss B”! Thank you for all you have done for us in the name of giant panda conservation, your five beautiful cubs, and for me personally. I am honored to be your keeper.

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read Kathy’s previous post, Panda 1st Grade.

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A Bittersweet Time

Zhen Zhen

As preparations continue for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen’s move to their ancestral homeland, there’s a lot going on at the San Diego Zoo Giant Panda Research Station. The girls’ last official exhibit day was August 16, which means our priority for them right now is training and research rather than exhibit time. Guests on August 17 were able to get a look at them—or not—depending on when they stopped by, and this situation could change to “off exhibit” at any time. We have no date as yet for the actual move; as always, we’ll let you know when it happens.

What is all this training and research? Previous bloggers have addressed this, but in brief, the training is designed to minimize the stress and increase familiarity with the travel crates. Our previous pandas have moved surprisingly well with this kind of training—after all, they have their biscuits, bamboo, and friendly faces with them. Aside from a comfy place to nap, what more could they ask for? While the bears fly cargo, they always go escorted by someone they know who checks on them on a nearly hourly basis. For Mei Sheng, the trip to Wolong took about 21 hours, all in; I believe it’s a bit less to Bi Feng Xia. Getting cozy in their crates means that they have to spend time in them, hence the time now spent “off exhibit.”

Then there’s the issue of diet. Anyone who’s traveled, whether domestically or abroad, can relate to the fact that food is different wherever you go—it’s one of the things that makes travel so interesting, although it can be a challenge. The girls are transitioning to the steamed bamboo bread that they’ll be receiving in China, in addition to all the fresh bamboo they can eat, and the keepers report that the diet transition going well. This, too, is to minimize the “strange” in their new home.

And the research? There is hearing study data to continue to collect while we can, records to update, and videos to make to document training and husbandry procedures here so that their Chinese keepers will be better able to understand their precious charges and minimize the “language barrier” of new behaviors on both the part of the keepers and these new, unfamiliar bears.

In the past, we’ve had panda cubs remain here longer than three years, but it has always been part of our research agreement that the Chinese may move the bears after their third birthdays. It has been our good fortune to have Hua Mei, Mei Sheng, and Su Lin stay longer, but Zhen Zhen’s journey at just three years old is good fortune in its own way. It is difficult to introduce adult pandas to one another outside of breeding season, but subadults like ZZ can be found interacting in the wild, as well as in managed care, until maturity. None of our previous cubs have had this opportunity, since they were always larger and older, but perhaps ZZ can be introduced to playmates over the next year or so. Should this happen, she’ll have had a different experience than our previous cubs. This in itself offers yet another opportunity to learn about the development of young pandas, adding another important piece to the puzzle of the panda.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Days of Summer.

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Pandas in China: One Year Later

Panda "kindergarten" at Bi Feng Xia

Panda kindergarten at Bi Feng Xia

When I returned to China for the 2009 breeding season, I was overcome with joy as I saw my Chinese friends in person. After the earthquake on May 12, 2008, I found some way to communicate with all of them, but there is nothing like being face to face. Forgetting that I was in China, I went up to each of them and gave them a huge hug. The looks on their faces were priceless! They don’t traditionally hug as a greeting, so to have a tall blonde woman hug you in public was shocking to most of them. Afterward they all just chuckled a little bit and changed the subject.

Life in Bi Feng Xia was business as usual. Female giant pandas were going into estrus everywhere you looked. It was as if the breeding center had broken out into song. After Hua Mei mated there was a huge dinner celebration because she had the first natural breeding session of the year!

Bi Feng Xia staff

Bi Feng Xia staff

New exhibits were opening almost every day as the Wolong relocated giant pandas returned home. I had drawn a map of the facility on my first day and by the time I left it was barely readable due to all the additions. The panda kindergarten was full of last year’s cubs, and they were constantly having a blast in their outdoor jungle gym enclosure.

The Panda Club has put up plaques throughout the panda base thanking everyone for their support. It is very clear that the world reached out to them in their time of need and we have made a difference in their ability to recover from the earthquake.

Jennifer Keating is a research scientist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Mei Sheng’s New Exhibit.

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Mei Sheng’s New Exhibit

Can you spot Mei Sheng?

Can you spot Mei Sheng?

Jennifer Keating, a research scientist for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research, is in China conducting research on giant pandas. She is kind enough to include updates on the two pandas born at the Zoo now living in China, Hua Mei and Mei Sheng. Read her previous blog, Hua Mei: Quite the Charmer.

Ya’an has a reputation for being the rainiest city in China. Even though I have only been here a short time, I am willing to say that this reputation is very true! The Bifengxia panda base is just up the mountainside from Ya’an and tends to get more rain than Ya’an. To everyone’s surprise, the sun came out a few days ago, and it happened to coincide with Mei Sheng getting moved to his new exhibit.

There have been massive amounts of construction all over the panda base, and for those of you that have visited Bifengxia, they have built six beautiful, large enclosures up on Leopard Mountain. Mei Sheng was extremely happy to explore his new exhibit. There are tons of tall trees for him to climb and sleep in. On the mornings I have visited Mei Sheng, I have found his keeper outside the exhibit trying to call him down from the tree he has spent the night in.

One of the projects I have been working on here in China involves Mei Sheng. The goal of the project has been to collect audio recordings of the male giant panda bleat, along with fecal samples from that day. We will then look at the levels of testosterone in the fecal samples and see if there is a correlation with the bleat recorded on that day. Mei Sheng is the youngest male in the study, helping to provide a wide range of ages.

The data collection for this project has been very successful, and as of this morning I have everything I need to bring back to the U.S. for analysis.

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Hua Mei: Quite the Charmer

Hua Mei in China

Hua Mei in China

I have returned to China for this year’s breeding season, and to my surprise, Hua Mei was the center of attention in Bifengxia. Hua Mei did not breed last year due to the earthquake, so she was ready to be at the front of the pack this year. The Bifengxia Giant Panda Base (part of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda) is in the final stages of building its new breeding center. Workers are just finishing up the front entrance, but the 14 panda exhibits are finished and in use. They have made many improvements to the design of the breeding center, including some new safety measures for the keepers.

When I first found Hua Mei, she was bleating in an exhibit between Ling Ling and Wu Gang. These males were extremely excited and vocal about having her as a neighbor. Hua Mei’s keeper was trying to feed her some bamboo bread, but Hua Mei thought it would be better used as perfume. Hua Mei took the chunk of bread between her chin and shoulder and rubbed it into her fur. Once it fell to the ground, she began to lie on top of the leftovers and managed to cover her entire back in bamboo bread crumbles. I couldn’t hold back my laughter because she looked like she was having so much fun!

Rubbing herself in bamboo bread must be one the secrets to her success for breeding. Hua Mei, over the course of two days, mated four times. Each session was done to textbook, and she set a great example for the other giant pandas. I only hope they took notes. Of course, we won’t know for several months if a pregnancy was achieved.

I will be in China for the next several weeks collecting vocalizations from the giant pandas and working with Ben Charlton (Zoo Atlanta) on some audio playback studies. In my next blog, I will report on my progress and about Mei Sheng.

Jennifer Keating is a research scientist for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research.

Read Jennifer’s previous blog, Congratulations, Guo Guo!