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panda zhen zhen

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Panda Zhen Zhen

Zhen Zhen was busy climbing trees just before her estrus period started.

Zhen Zhen was busy climbing trees just before her estrus period started. Photo credit: Meghan Martin

Zhen Zhen is now 5 1/2 years old, and our latest news from China indicates that she is doing very well! The third cub of Bai Yun and Gao, we’ve just learned that she was the first female to come into estrous this year in BiFengXia, and that she bred with two males, Lu Lu and Yuan Yuan. Zhen Zhen and her big sister, Su Lin, moved to China in September 2010 to be a part of the panda breeding program there.

While we can’t tell at this point whether or not these breeding encounters were successful (i.e., will result in a pregnancy), all reports suggest that her behavior was perfect. We are hopeful that she’ll have cubs later this summer, and we’ll keep you posted! Congratulations to Zhen Zhen!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Speaking to Friends about Pandas.

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China Trip Diary: Part 3

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 2.

I have decided that flying with a giant panda is the way to go! Fifteen hours go by very quickly when you have a two incredible pandas to visit with and take care of. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were troupers throughout the journey. The “What ifs” and worries of what might happen were subdued by the natural behaviors these two young pandas demonstrated in conditions far from routine. The dedicated daily care given to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, combined with the wonderful travel training efforts provided by the keepers, set this journey up to be a success!

The plane landed in Shanghai at 7:30 a.m. (Shanghai time). Chinese officials boarded the plane to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen and to review permits. Tracy and I parted from the pandas to make our way through Customs. We then were driven back to the cargo section of the airport to rejoin Su Lin and Zhen. They were both awake and observing their new surroundings.

The pandas are checked by Bi Feng Xia's vet and keeper. Due to rain, the panda crates and supplies were loosely covered in plastic.

Tracy and I met with Wu Honglin and Wei Ming (veterinarian and keeper from Bi Feng Xia). I was convinced that Su Lin and Zhen were in good hands for the remainder of their journey. Tracy donated the medical equipment she packed to Wu Honglin for use at Bi Feng Xia and gave him a large envelope full of medical, diet, and husbandry information on the girls. I handed over the behavior training DVD of Zhen and Su Lin to Wei Ming; researchers had worked with keepers to document the cues and behaviors trained to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. I also presented a bag full of clickers, the hand-held audio signal used by trainers worldwide to communicate to an animal that the response given was what the trainer had hoped for.

There was a quick photo session behind a welcoming banner with Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Tracy, me, Wu, Wei, and airline executives…and then we parted. The goodbye was a bit abrupt due to the fact that the next flight for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen was crucial to get them to their destination without a major delay, and there was little time to spare.

From left: Veterinarian Wu, Gaylene, Tracy, and Keeper Wei

Despite my disorientation of real time, I calculated the flight time for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen to Chengdu, the ground travel time from Chengdu to Bi Feng Xia, and allowed for a two-hour window of error to determine when to begin asking Peter if Zhen and Su arrived without any problems. At approximately 7:30 p.m. Shanghai time, Peter informed Tracy and me that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen had safely arrived at Bi Feng Xia. It was time to celebrate and sleep!

There was a significant void when I returned to work. Daily, I passed by the empty exhibits of where Zhen Zhen and Su Lin had resided. News of their successful adjustment in China was comforting, but still their unique behaviors and habits were missed. I’m sure the sensitivities of Su Lin and the antics of Zhen Zhen are being appreciated by their new keepers! And, as years go by, perhaps we will hear stories of success, just as we have heard about Hua Mei and her eighth cub, born this year!

As keepers, trainers, researchers, supervisors, and veterinarians, we build a bond and can become attached with the animals we care for. To limit the animals we work with to our selfish bond would be an insult to the plight of their species. With a big lump in our throat, and often tears in our eyes, we bid farewell to the animals we have grown fond of for the ultimate cause of conservation!

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.

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China Trip Diary: Part 2

Tracy, left, and Gaylene pose on the truck with the pandas on moving day.

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 1.

The day of departure arrived, and the keepers and I did our best to focus on the tasks we had to accomplish rather than the goodbyes we had to say. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen entered their crates and settled in. I buckled my seatbelt on the bench seat directly in front of the pandas in the cargo section of the truck, and we departed for the land portion of the journey.

Associate Curator Curby Simerson drove the truck with Senior Veterinarian Tracy Clippinger, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and I as passengers. Tracy gave me a quick overview of the veterinary medical equipment she packed in case of an emergency. California Highway Patrol escorted us for the seemingly quick trip to Los Angeles International airport. Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant drove the chaser truck with all the panda luggage and passengers Shea Johnson and Ken Bohn (Zoo videographer and photographer).

A crated panda is placed on a cargo pallet at the airport.

Los Angeles Airport staff greeted us when we arrived and instructed us through the steps of transferring the precious cargo from our truck to the loading warehouse. The staff was very understanding of our unique demands to remain with the pandas for every step of the process. The warehouse was busy; forklifts, boxes, pallets, and people were all on the move. The travel crates with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen inside, their supplies and food, were secured to cargo pallets. Airport staff carefully transferred the pallets to a quiet corner of the warehouse, where Su Lin and Zhen Zhen seized the opportunity for a nap.

For the next few hours Lisa, Tracy, Shea, Ken, and I stayed with Zhen and Su Lin. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials reviewed permits, observed the pandas, and confirmed the authorization of the transport. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were comfortable enough to snack on some biscuits and a bit of bamboo. Prior to boarding the airplane, Lisa, Tracy, and I had our first opportunity to try out the travel husbandry techniques we had practiced . We successfully cleaned both crates and drinkers without causing a startle from Su Lin or Zhen Zhen. We secured all the supplies and cleaning equipment back onto the shipment pallet and were ready for the next step.

Pandas and staff are lifted up to the cargo plane.

Airport officials allowed all of us to move onto the tarmac with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. The Boeing 777 we were about to board appeared magnified by our miniscule presence on the tarmac! Tracy and I were given quick instructions on how to safely “ride” the cargo lift, and we stepped up beside Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were slowly elevated until we were staring directly into the huge cargo hull. The metal pallets with us, the bears, and supplies were mechanically moved through the hull of the plane on tracks.

Loading our precious cargo first meant that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen would be in the front section of the plane, just on the other side of the wall with four passenger seats. Geographically moving from the nose of the cargo plane back was the cockpit, a small area for the crew (total of four members), a small galley area, and four passenger seats. Aboard the plane with Tracy and I was our liason to China and interpreter, Peter. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were pretty tired at this point. The move from the warehouse to the plane was uneventful for them and didn’t interfere with another nap.

Tracy and I were given a short lesson on the emergency equipment of the aircraft. We were shown how to operate the door between us and the bears and how to use the amenities of the galley. The Chinese crew settled us in with blankets and M&Ms for a 2:30 a.m. departure.

Tracy checks on a panda after the travel crate is secure in the plane.

Shortly after take-off, Tracy and I summoned a crew member, as we were requested to do, to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were anxious to assess the pandas’ reaction to air travel. Both bears looked very relaxed, so we elected to turn off the lights in hopes of encouraging a much-needed block of sleep time. Tracy and I checked on the bears about every four hours. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen guided our activities by their behaviors. If they were lying down and resting or sleeping, we remained quiet and moved slowly while checking on them. If they roused, we would talk to them in a quiet voice. If they seemed to respond to our presence and voice, we would offer food.

Su Lin was receptive to her standard variety of food, including bamboo culm, biscuits, carrots, yams, and apple slices. The travel crates were the perfect size for her to position herself in the classic “panda prop sit” against the wall of the crate and precisely strip and consume the bamboo. Zhen Zhen enjoyed small amounts of bamboo culm but was much more eager to take the biscuits, fruits, and veggies as I offered them through the large food hatch on the top of the crate. The cleaning routine worked just as well in the air as on land. Honey was a great distraction from the rake that cleared away debris from the crates!

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.

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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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Pandas on Stand-By

Su Lin

We have spent a good part of the summer gearing up for the departure of our beloved young female pandas, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. The news of their imminent departure hit us all hard, and even though we knew it was for the best, no one was looking forward to saying goodbye. Well, August has turned to September, and Su Lin and Zhen Zhen have not yet left on their voyage to China.

A twist of fate has extended the pandas’ time here at the San Diego Zoo: they were scheduled to travel through Shanghai, but we have since learned that the overlap of their scheduled arrival with the Shanghai World Exposition would not be feasible given the necessary logistics of ensuring security for the pandas at the heightened security level for the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. This delay and trying to rework the travel plans for the pandas has certainly been a challenge for the folks here at the San Diego Zoo who are responsible for the logistics of their trip, but for the research team, keepers, Zoo visitors, and Panda Cam viewers, it has been our good fortune to have some extra time to spend with these bears and to continue to collect data for the hearing study.

We will keep everyone updated regarding their departure.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, One More Thing Before They Go.

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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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One More Thing Before They Go

Su Lin

For the past year, Su Lin has been the primary subject of our giant panda hearing study. About six months ago, Zhen Zhen began her participation in earnest, and for the last two months, she has been showing us what a three-year-old panda can hear. Data that we’ve collected from both of these bears are unprecedented and mark the first glimpse into the auditory world of the giant panda.

While keepers are working hard to make sure Su Lin and Zhen Zhen are ready for their upcoming adventure and transition to life at the Bi Feng Xia base in Sichuan, China, our research team is also working hard collecting every last scrap of data we can on this pair! Our hearing study requires a collaborative effort between researchers, keepers, and bears, and very few other facilities anywhere in the world have the combination of resources that allows the pursuit of such research. We are very proud of our collaborative efforts and are going to miss working so closely with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen.

We began the hearing study on giant pandas about two years ago, with Bai Yun as our main subject. In the month before she gave birth to Yun Zi, Bai Yun decided that she wasn’t interested in our research anymore! Of course, we obliged her desire to be left alone and shifted our focus to Su Lin; she showed us her hearing was perhaps even more sensitive than that of her mom. Over the course of the last year or so, we have been able to collect a lot of data on Su Lin and, when our analyses are complete, we should be able to produce a comprehensive description of panda hearing—an unparalleled achievement.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had as much time to work with Zhen Zhen, but we have been able to pinpoint some important frequencies to test, and her data will make a very interesting comparison: Zhen Zhen’s young ears are in perfect shape, but are her listening skills as sharp as her older sister’s? Again, when the analyses are complete, we’ll have more answers.

Over the next week or so, we will work with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen as much as we can. The data are, of course, important, but the time the keepers and researchers get to spend with the bears is something to cherish.

After Su Lin and Zhen Zhen leave San Diego, we will reintegrate Bai Yun into the study and incorporate Gao Gao as well. Gao Gao has been working with keepers and getting ready to be a part of the study for some months now, and we are all looking forward to having a chance to work with him and study his ears as well.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, New Chapter for Su Lin, Zhen Zhen.

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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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New Chapter for Su Lin, Zhen Zhen

Su Lin

When Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived in San Diego from China in September 1996, the San Diego Zoo made it clear that it was committed to giant panda conservation. Bai Yun and Shi Shi captured the public’s attention, and the problems we encountered trying to get this mismatched couple to breed mirrored the predominate conservation problem that researchers were trying to tackle at facilities in China: How do you get giant pandas to breed in a captive setting? How do you get pandas to do what should come naturally?

Over the next 10 years, our interdisciplinary panda team worked tirelessly to study all aspects of reproduction, apply what we learned to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, and develop a two-way exchange of knowledge with our partners at the Wolong Breeding Center in Sichuan, China. In 1996, only two females gave birth at Wolong. Although captive breeding was only one component of the conservation puzzle, it was clear that without a self-sustaining and genetically diverse captive population, the ultimate goal of reintroducing pandas to the wild would never come to fruition. But how quickly things have changed!

By the time I traveled to Wolong for the first time in the winter of 2000, the breeding center was enjoying a record-setting number of recent giant panda births (11 cubs!), and the San Diego Zoo’s Hua Mei, conceived through artificial insemination, was charming Zoo visitors and giving us a lot to study in the realm of panda cub development. The studies of panda behavior, reproductive physiology, genetics, and animal husbandry had all come into play to support the success at the San Diego Zoo, as well as at the Wolong Breeding Center.

Over the years, we (the Zoo’s Panda Team, visitors to the Zoo, and panda fans) have developed an incredible connection to and love of the pandas that have been born and raised in San Diego. Hua Mei’s departure from the Zoo marked our first experience with sending a San Diego-born panda to China. She was followed by Mei Sheng in 2007. Although we all knew it was for the best, it was a tough pill to swallow, and Hua Mei and Mei Sheng were sorely missed. Looking back now, however, with seven cubs representing Bai Yun and the completely unrepresented Shi Shi’s genetic make-up, we are very, very proud to have contributed to the broader needs of giant panda conservation.

Zhen Zhen

Soon, both Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will follow in older siblings Hua Mei and Mei Sheng’s footsteps. As I write this, I can tell you that I will miss these two bears! Su Lin is five years old, has already experienced her first fully developed estrus cycle, and is more than ready to join the conservation breeding program at the Wolong Nature Reserve Giant Panda Bi Feng Xia Base. Zhen Zhen is three years old now and will embark on her panda adolescence as part of the panda program at Bi Feng Xia as well.

Both Su Lin and Zhen Zhen have made incredibly valuable contributions to our research program and have contributed ground-breaking data on panda hearing sensitivity. These data will allow us to better estimate how noise from human activities may impact giant pandas in the wild. Collecting these data allowed keepers and researchers to work with both of these beautiful bears, up close and personal, on a daily basis. What a pleasure that has been!

As the drive to learn conservation-relevant knowledge of giant pandas shifts from captive propagation to reintroduction, we are excited that the pandas of San Diego will become a part of this larger conservation effort. Who knows? Maybe in the not-too-distant future, one of Gao Gao and Bai Yun’s descendants will one day be born in a large, old-growth tree den high in the mountains near Wolong. That image alone is enough to bring a smile to my face and makes me truly feel that the Giant Panda Team, and supporters of the San Diego Zoo’s pandas, have much to be proud of.

In preparation for their new adventure, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will not be in public view beginning Monday, August 16, while they continue a training program that helps prepare them for the changes ahead. Their mother, Bai Yun, and her one-year-old cub, Yun Zi, will continue to be seen at the San Diego Zoo.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Read her previous post, Birthday Celebration.

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Zhen Zhen: Great Listener

Like her big sister Su Lin, Zhen Zhen is participating in the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Hearing Study. Zhen Zhen is the youngest bear to be included in this research program and will provide us with new information regarding differences between the hearing sensitivity of young bears and that of adult bears. She has also been a remarkable example of how a young bear can learn a fairly complex task, and learn it fast!

Part of our study requires that the bear hold still, in a consistent location, until a tone is played. Nothing more is asked of the bear: just sit still and listen! Although this might not seem like it is much to ask, any of you out there with children will understand how challenging it is for a young and playful animal to just sit still, much less sit still AND listen. But Zhen Zhen, it turns out, is a great listener. Panda keepers and our research staff cannot help but smile as we watch Zhen Zhen during the hearing sessions, holding still with seemingly relaxed and steady concentration. She is getting it and is proving to be the best in her family at holding still and waiting for a tone.

A panda Zhen Zhen’s age in the wild would greatly benefit from being a good listener. No longer protected by her mother, and not yet full size or full of the wisdom that experience and maturity bring, she has to be on her toes, ready to avoid trouble and seek out good stands of bamboo.

We will continue to work with Zhen Zhen , Su Lin, Bai Yun, and Gao Gao over the course of this study. Not only are we getting great data on a poorly understood aspect of panda biology, but we are also having a chance to challenge our bears, and let them show us just how smart they are.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Planes, Seismic Trains, and Snow Machines.