panda newborn


Black and White on Horizon

Our newborn cub is kept safe in Bai Yun’s protective arms.

Giant pandas are renowned for their distinctive black-and-white pelage; for many, it’s hard to relate the squirmy, pink giant panda neonate to the iconic fluffy black-and-white of older panda cubs. However, this long-tailed pink phase doesn’t last long, and by two weeks of age, the black-and-white markings on the panda cub’s skin are typically fairly distinct and herald the onset of a whole suite of developmental changes.

Of course, in the days soon after birth, the most important developmental changes we look for are simply continued growth and signs of vigor. We assess these characteristics by looking for a full belly (see Panda Cub: Big Belly) and loud squawking vocalizations. Both of these traits are most evident when Bai Yun leaves the den.

But the change in skin color, presaging the development of true fur, is another exciting and important milestone to watch for. Beyond the inherent cuteness of panda cubs at this stage, it also serves as an announcement, to all of us, that the most fragile period in the cub’s life has passed. So keep your eyes peeled, and look for the subtle color changes in about a week. When I see that change, I will start to sleep a little easier!

Right now, Bai Yun has her little cub tucked neatly under her chin, and they are both resting calmly. It is a beautiful sight to see and makes it hard to believe how quickly things will change for both Mom and cub.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Den Cam.


Panda Cub: 1st Overnight

Bai Yun keeps her newborn close and out of sight!

I checked into the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station this morning at about 3:30. The keeper on duty before me reported nothing unusual. She had gotten a few very brief glimpses of the cub as Bai Yun shifted position and had heard the cub vocalize on a number of occasions. However, she had also noted several long bouts of resting for both mother and cub.

This was good to hear. After the fatiguing event that is labor, new panda mothers are met with a demanding neonate who needs all of her attention to stay warm and comfortable. The cubs are largely hairless and lacking in body fat; thus, Mom’s warm embrace is essential to their survival in those early days. To keep such a small cub warm, the much larger mother must hold the baby up off the ground in her arms.

This means Bai Yun cannot simply sprawl out in the den to rest. She must instead engage in a balancing act that allows her to rest while snuggling that cub against her body. What’s more, she has to change positions every 20 to 60 minutes to allow the cub access to her teats for lactation. This active postpartum schedule is not unlike that of a human mother who has just given birth, except that, unlike a human, Bai Yun never sets her newborn down. Her own paws and arms are her neonate’s bassinet.

Throughout the early, dark hours of this morning, Bai Yun shifted from resting posture to a nursing posture regularly. Though I was never able to get a good glimpse of the cub nursing, there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest nursing was occurring. Bai Yun held herself in a familiar posture, bracing the newborn against her upper abdomen. She periodically moved the cub across her body as she pushed the youngster from one nipple to the next. The cub vocalized in protest at the adjustments but grew quiet shortly thereafter, probably because it was latched on and suckling.

Hopefully, one of the panda team members will confirm nursing soon, either by observing the cub latched on or by seeing smears of milk on Bai Yun’s fur after a presumed nursing bout. And once Bai Yun relaxes enough to give us a good view of the cub—something we have yet to obtain—we hope to see a full, distended belly that indicates it is well fed.

So far, so good.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Gives Birth.

Note: Our Panda Cam will focus on mother and cub in the den starting at 2 p.m. PT today!


Panda, Panda, Bo-banda…

As most of you know, we have begun accepting suggestions from the public for naming the San Diego Zoo’s infant panda. This is our 5th go-around with the naming process, and each time it seems we have more and more “audience participation” built in. The new feature this time will be the added online option for suggesting a name. At the end of it all there will be five names offered to you for voting. I thought you might like to know a bit more about how we get from the name suggestions to the voting process.

Each day, members of the Panda Team take a look at all of the name suggestions submitted in person at the Zoo on the previous day. This can be a lot of paperwork! Today was my day for going through the names, and there were probably 200 to 300 offerings dropped in the submission box from Sunday. My first pass through separated potential Chinese names from ones the Chinese would not likely approve (Bam Bu, Oreo, Diego, Fluffy…). I was left with a handful of good options from which I had to narrow things down to a select few choices.

My choices from today will be combined with those chosen on all the other days. Staff from the Panda Team—keepers, vets, narrators, nutritionists—will all have a day for reviewing names and will pick their favorites. The Team will gather in week or so to narrow that subset of names to the final five you will vote on.

Based on our selection criteria from previous years, we typically settle on names that sound good to the ear and aren’t too hard to pronounce. Good names have a positive meaning or connotation for the bear or the species. But even with the best of intentions, we might run up against a few names that only a native Chinese speaker can clue us into as to their suitability. Case in point: Bright Star, the name so many wanted to give to Zhen Zhen in 2007. The Team seriously considered this name for the voter’s short list, until we were told by a Mandarin-speaking staff member that the Chinese phrase referred to a celebrity-type of star. This was a connotation we didn’t find appropriate for our bear. As you can see, a lot of thought and discussion goes into this process!

Obviously, not every name submitted will wind up on the voting list. Kudos go to those of you who take the time to put forward thoughtful, creative names for us to consider. I enjoyed reading through Sunday’s names today. A special thanks goes to whomever submitted “Dr. McAwesomesauce”… I got a good laugh out of that one!

Submit your suggestions online here.

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


Pandas: All is Well

Thanks to all of you for your concern about Bai Yun and her cub. Bai Yun did indeed take her youngster out into the sun room last night when she went out to feed. Our security staff, who check on the pandas several times each night after the San Diego Zoo is closed, found the cub resting comfortably on a pile of bamboo under the stars, with Mother a few feet away. All was fine, and all is fine again today.

In the next few days you might see Bai Yun with access to her garden room again. This is a natural step in the progression of the postpartum period. In future weeks, Bai Yun will begin separating herself from her youngster for more and more time, usually during periods of rest. She might head out to the garden room (Camera #15) for a nap while the cub remains behind in the den. If she wants to bring the little one with her, that is fine, too; you will notice we have placed a lair into the garden room should she want to deposit the cub there. Whether or not she uses it is her choice. A bed of fresh bamboo may be even more appealing than a fabricated lair! Again, it’s up to Bai Yun.

Please remember that about this time with Zhen Zhen, Bai Yun was experimenting with taking the cub out of the den (see post, There’s No Place like Home). Recall also that the cub is no longer tiny and hairless but is covered with fur and a layer of fat built upon Bai Yun’s ample, rich milk. If the cub was unhappy, cold, or otherwise uncomfortable, it would vocalize its discontent, and we have never seen Bai Yun refuse to attend to a crying infant. We trust her to do what is right for her infant.

As always, staff is watching and responding to events that occur. But please be reassured that all is well, and Bai Yun is doing her usual fabulous job of caring for her infant. She is, after all, a “hero mother” now!

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


Panda Cub: In Due Time

Now nearly three weeks of age, Bai Yun’s fifth cub continues to do well and develop right on schedule. The black of the saddle, ears, and legs has set in, a pigmentation change of the skin that precedes the black fur that will grow in to cover those areas in the next several weeks. Although our veterinarians have not yet had a chance to examine the cub, it is likely that the eyes and ears are still closed, as these don’t fully open until several weeks after birth.

When will the vets have a chance to look at the cub? As always, this will depend on Bai Yun. When she develops a regular pattern of den departures and is comfortable staying away from the den for many minutes at a time, then staff will feel more comfortable about shutting the door between her and her offspring in order to access the den to retrieve the cub. Doing it any sooner could cause undue stress for Bai Yun, who is very protective of her young at this stage of the game.

Interestingly, Bai Yun is developing that more relaxed attitude at a slower rate than previous years. The graph below demonstrates that she is allowing the cub to be in contact with the ground for less time than our 2003, 2005, and 2007 cubs at the same age. Time in contact with the ground–either while simultaneously in contact with Mom or independently while she is out of the den–is an indicator to us of Bai Yun’s comfort level, how relaxed she is about caring for the cub. Thus far, she appears to be sustaining a high level of care that prevents her from putting the cub down much. This is one sign to us that, as of day 15 postpartum, she wasn’t yet ready for us to exert any influence over what is happening in the den.


I know it is difficult to wait to get the first color photos of our new little panda. I am sure you are anxious to know the gender of the cub and hear the veterinarian’s reassurances that the youngster is healthy. But we will all need to wait a little longer, because Bai Yun is still very much in charge here. Not to worry: it won’t be that long before she hits her stride and allows us a chance to peek into that den. At that point, you can expect a regular stream of photographic updates as the vets establish their routine health checks with the cub. In due time…

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Hungry?


Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

pcIf you haven’t been able to get a glimpse of the panda cub while Bai Yun is out of the den, here’s your chance. In this video, you’ll even hear it squawking for Mom!



As of the evening of August 11, Bai Yun has made a total of six den departures. In the afternoon of August 10, she enjoyed her first bites of bamboo since before the birth of the cub. For this, she must leave the den, travel through her bedroom, and enter her outdoor sunroom. Here, the keepers leave fresh snippets of choice bamboo stem and leaf for her.

Keepers feed her far from her den intentionally. There is a door they can close between the bedroom and sunroom to allow the keeper safe entry to the area to place her food and remove any debris or feces Bai Yun leaves behind. The den door itself can close, too, but staff won’t attempt to move that door until much later in the denning phase, when Bai Yun is clear of this most sensitive time. The quiet zone is still in effect, and we are disturbing her as little as possible to protect the infant panda and ensure that Bai Yun is not stressed.

During these initial feedings, Bai Yun spends only a few minutes ingesting bamboo. She hasn’t been out of the den for more than eight minutes in one trip thus far. Even if the cub is relatively quiet, she seems not to push the boundaries too much yet. It will take her some time to be back to her usual hour-long bamboo feasts.

Bai Yun’s increasingly frequent forays will leave the cub exposed to the Panda Cam viewers. See if you can spot the black saddle and ears starting to color up. This change in color is actually a pigmentation change of the skin, as the hair-like fur on the infant is still a snowy white. The fur is very sparse yet. Look also for signs of Bai Yun’s quality mothering: little rolls of flesh developing behind the neck, and a full, round belly indicating a well-fed baby. All are indicators to us that things in the den are going very well indeed.

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


Fueling Up

Bai Yun and her littlest panda are doing very well. We continue to see the pattern of feeding, grooming, and resting that is typical of this early postpartum period. As always, Bai Yun is very responsive to her cub’s vocalizations. Although this cub is not as quiet as Zhen Zhen, it isn’t particularly fussy, which is great news for its mother.

One of our newer keepers, experiencing a panda cub for the first time, has marveled at the changes in Bai Yun since the birth. Juli remarked that Bai Yun is normally a bear “with a lot of attitude,” and she is amazed to see her so totally devoted to, and seemingly at the beck and call of, this tiny little creature in her den. It’s as if someone has flipped a switch, and our normally independent panda has morphed into “mothering mode” instantly and completely.

Bai Yun can remain so focused on her cub, foregoing food and drink, for only so long. Mother bears of some species are able to den up, give birth, and manage the initial rearing of their young in the den without eating or drinking. This fasting state can last for months with polar, brown, or black bears. They manage this by fueling their metabolism and lactation with their stored fat, thus protecting their muscle from wasting away during this time without caloric intake. Pandas, like other bears, have many of the same biological mechanisms and drives as do hibernating species, but they are unable to put on the fat layer in the same way as other bears. Bamboo just isn’t as caloric as seal or salmon or berries. Fortunately for the panda, it isn’t as seasonal, either.

So Bai Yun will ultimately need to leave her very young infant behind when she ventures out for a drink or a meal. In 2005, her first drink was 2 days postpartum, and in 2003 and 2007 it was on day 3. In 2009, Bai Yun left her den for a drink in the wee hours of 8 August, entering day 3. Her foray was brief (3 minutes in total) but her cub vocalized nearly continuously in her absence, so she returned immediately and tended to it. Later that morning, she ventured out again for another drink. As of this writing, she hasn’t yet left again, but we can anticipate this becoming a regular occurrence.

When will she eat? In 2003, she fed on day 5 postpartum; in 2005, on day 8; in 2007, on day 9. It’s likely she will continue to forgo food for another few days yet. Stay tuned to the Panda Cam to see if you can spot her running out for a bite!

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


Repeat, and Repeat, and Repeat

As I write this, it’s nearly 11 p.m. on the day of birth of our new panda cub at the San Diego Zoo. Now almost 18 hours old, the cub is settling into a nice routine with Bai Yun, developing a pattern we have seen with our other cubs and one we expect will continue for some time: periods of quiet rest lasting 20 to 45 minutes, followed by presumed nursing sessions lasting about 10 minutes, followed by 5 or more minutes of grooming the cub; then repeat, and repeat again, and again.

This rhythmic pattern demonstrates to us that all is well in the den. Bai Yun has already hit her stride with this cub, demonstrating her maternal proficiency by managing this intense period of their lives together with aplomb. The periods of quiet rest signal to us that this cub is content and satisfied with the care it is receiving. And rest allows Bai Yun to avoid exhaustion, a factor implicated in the deaths of infants. Very fatigued panda mothers have been known to crush their newborns when exhaustion overcomes them.

We are thrilled to see that Bai Yun continues to be the mother we all know that she is: competent, gentle, patient. It makes our jobs easier. And we are gratified by all of your many warm well-wishes. Thanks for caring enough about our panda program to express your enthusiasm about what is happening here. And a very special thank you to those who indicated you were moved to donate in support of our program! Your generosity is very much appreciated.

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