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panda Mei Sheng

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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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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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Our Good-bye Girls

Zhen Zhen

I have read with some sympathy the many, many comments, questions, and concerns you have posted in the last few days in response to news that our two youngest girls are heading back to China very soon. I wanted to take a moment to address some of the issues you have raised and offer further insight into this important transition for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen.

Currently, both girls are undergoing another transition, from biscuits to bamboo bread. The bread is what the bears are fed in China, and to minimize the stress of the move, we want them acclimated to this dietary change as much as possible before they leave. Thus far, little Zhen Zhen is taking to the bread with a little more enthusiasm than her big sister.

When the bears are transported, they will not be sedated for the journey. This is the primary reason for crate training; once the crate is a familiar environment, they will enter it willingly and be comfortable when inside. A seasoned and familiar handler will travel with the bears, and job one will be to keep the girls calm and happy. Experience has shown us that supplying copious amounts of fresh bamboo during the flight goes a long way toward making this a successful voyage.

The other bears we have returned to China have been great successes: Hua Mei has been a twinning superstar, and as a result, she has given birth to more cubs than her mother; Mei Sheng was the youngest male on record—at less than five years of age—to copulate with a female. Mei Sheng participated in the 2010 breeding season and stands a good shot of being a daddy this year. I am sure Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will also do well in their native land.

The loss of our girls has another silver lining beyond those mentioned above: Gao Gao will make a return to the exhibit areas in fairly short order. Due to our need to house Su Lin up front in order to facilitate the hearing study, our patriarch has been behind the scenes for many months, and I know he has many fans that would love to see him again.

I appreciate your bond with our panda youngsters. Those of us who work with them are not immune to their charms. So much of our lives—and our time—is invested in these animals. That they would leave us one day was understood. That they will make us proud is inevitable.

China has embarked on a new plan to release pandas to the wild, one in which captive-bred females will give birth to their young in a semi-wild enclosure, and those unadulterated cubs will grow to be wild bears that will live their whole lives outside of the breeding center. Someday, one of Gao Gao’s descendants may wander the mountain passes of the Wolong Reserve. That would truly be a great end to the story begun in San Diego.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bamboo Feeding Basics.

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Gao Gao Grandbabies?

We have had confirmation from our friends in China that Mei Sheng, our beloved boy born to Bai Yun and Gao Gao in 2003, has indeed copulated with a female in Bi Feng Xia (BFX). Way to go, Mei Sheng!

In some ways we are all a bit surprised to hear this, since he is so young. Even our Chinese colleagues expressed their surprise at his success. It is definitely atypical for a male to achieve a copulation with his first-ever breeding encounter, especially when he is only five years old. But there are many reasons why Mei Sheng might have had the odds stacked in his favor.

First, some credit lies in the management tactics of our Chinese friends. It is their habit to give young animals a shot at gaining experience in breeding encounters in advance of their peak reproductive years. Apparently, they had little expectation that Mei Sheng would actually breed this year. However, he showed interest in a particular female, so they gave him a shot. Staff at BFX noted that the process took a long time, and were nearly ready to separate the two animals when copulation finally occurred.

Some credit should also be given to the chosen female. Ying Ying is a 17-year-old wild-caught female, mother to many litters of cubs, and a seasoned veteran of the mating game. She had been bred the previous day to another male, and staff is fairly certain of the success of that pairing, so there was no need to attempt further matings with Ying. She was a perfect candidate to play Mrs. Robinson to Mei Sheng. Apparently she and our boy hit it off beautifully. Her experience and patience no doubt played a role in our boy’s success. Even Gao Gao didn’t copulate in his first several breeding encounters, though his pairings were with a very young, inexperienced female, and that may have been all the difference.

Perhaps some of the credit lies with Bai Yun. Mei Sheng is unlike many of his peers at BFX, because he had the benefit of maternal guidance for 18 months of his life. Research has shown that in many animal species, animals that are reared by their mothers are more successful at reproduction than animals that are hand-raised. Bai Yun’s species-specific guidance may have given Mei Sheng an advantage compared to his nursery-reared counterparts, improving his chances of a breeding success.

Finally, a little credit might fall on the shoulders of his daddy, Gao Gao. We all know what a triumph Gao has been with natural mating, and there may be some genetic component that predisposes our young Mei Sheng to be a real breeding sensation. If this is true, then watch out! In the next few years we can expect a great number of Gao Gao grandbabies to populate the breeding centers of China!

In the short term, though, it is likely that Mei Sheng’s mating will not result in offspring. If the Chinese estimation is correct, it is likely Ying Ying will give birth to young from the other male she bred with this year. However, since it is known that bears, like some other carnivores, can give birth to litters with multiple sires, there remains a remote chance that Mei Sheng will be a daddy this year. In any case, he is primed to reprise his grandfather Pan Pan’s role of “breeder extraordinaire” in the future.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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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.