San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station


Pandas: Me Time

Hi, panda fans! I can almost see you.

For most of the last week, panda mother Bai Yun has been given access to her garden room at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station throughout the day. She hasn’t really been out there much, though we have noticed her sitting in her sunroom and looking out to the grassy garden floor. It’s as if she is toying with the idea of exploring, but not yet sure if she should indulge herself.

We offer garden room access because it is the natural progression for a postpartum panda to need more time away from her cub, not because she tires of caring for her youngster, but because nature requires this of her. A wild panda isn’t provided with high calorie, nutrient-dense biscuits, yams, and carrots each day. Instead, she must rely on the nutrition provided by bamboo, which is comparatively nutrient and calorie poor. As her appetite comes back online from her postpartum fast, and the energy drain of lactating for an increasingly hungry youngster take its toll, mother panda must spend more and more time out of the den meeting her dietary needs.

Of course, Bai Yun is not a wild panda, and she does benefit from regular feedings by her keepers. She can count on twice daily provisioning of the best bamboo we have to offer, and a nice pile of supplemental foods to boot. She doesn’t have to wander far or be gone long to meet her needs. But she still seems to have that drive to be out of the den, away from the cub, for periods of the day. Surely those among us with children of our own can relate to the need for a little “me time”?

And so we have offered Bai Yun her garden room. In the past, once she determines that it is time, she will move outside during the day and rest atop her platform. She seems to enjoy the breeze, the sunshine, and the opportunity to interact with her keepers. Bai Yun is still very close to the den and can easily hear the cub should it vocalize a need. But there is something about emerging from the darkness of the den into the light of a warm fall afternoon that seems to be of value to Bai Yun.

At the moment, she’s taking that emergence slowly. Today, after the morning cub exam, she chose to lie down in the bedroom, a few feet from the den. She was actually napping with her head hanging out into the sunroom. This absence wasn’t driven by hunger; she just wanted to be out of the den for a bit. She is beginning to seek that “me time” at her own pace. We expect that over the coming week or two we will see her explore that garden room and settle in atop her favorite platform in the corner.

Speaking of the cub exam, our staff managed to get their hands on the little guy in the den this morning. With an abdominal girth of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters), and a length of 16 inches (41.5 centimeters), you can understand why he reminds me of a sausage: he’s nearly as big around as he is long! Historically, however, he is not our heaviest cub thus far at 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). So he’s a petite sausage, I suppose.

Mei Sheng started out a little lighter than his sisters but became one of our larger cubs after several months. Whether or not our newest panda cub will follow in his eldest brother’s footsteps remains to be seen.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Gets Keeper Comfort.

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Pandas: You Asked, We Answer

The panda cub on August 15.

As Bai Yun and her cub continue to do well, staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station have slowly begun to emerge from the constant efforts of watching over the den activities to return to tasks put aside during the crucial early postpartum period. I’ve been reading through some of your comments and questions and thought I could offer some feedback.

Regarding the repeated questions regarding Bai Yun’s age, her health, and her behavior with this cub: Bai Yun is doing just fine! She has been resting a lot, which is entirely normal at this stage postpartum. If this is your first panda cub, I encourage you to read through our blog archives and see that sluggishness on the part of momma bear is de rigueur at this stage. Pandas are bears, after all, and many bears experience months of fasting and rest coupled with the birth and early postpartum rearing of their young (see Pandas, Bears, and Pregnancy).

There have been some really good scientific papers written on the magnificent ability of female bears to lactate and care for their young without eating for long periods, noting that very little muscle wastage is evident despite these energetically costly events. Please don’t worry about Bai Yun. She is built for this, and she is taking good care of herself as well as of her cub. We are very pleased with their progress so far.

As an aside: you can see the activities in the den well, but you can’t see what Bai Yun is doing when she leaves the den. She has been getting regular drinks since day 1 postpartum. She has even been observed feeding on occasion. Although she isn’t consuming much yet, she has spent a little time feeding on bamboo and even snacked on biscuits. Her appetite will come back much faster than those cold-weather hibernators, but it is a gradual process. She is making expected changes to her intake every few days.

A few of you noted that the camera has been showing fewer close ups lately. We’ve started to add our other responsibilities into our day, and so when we do leave the monitoring room, we zoom out so the whole den is visible. I’ve noted that some of you are quick to record snippets of video when there is a nice, tight zoom on the cub. Keep sharing your videos with each other so that everyone can benefit from those close ups!

As to the heat in the area: yes, it’s been blazingly hot and humid in San Diego in the last week. But, as our moderator indicated, there is air conditioning in the bedroom area that opens to the den. This air is set to a constant temperature and can filter into the den. Even so, it can get hot in those mountains of China in the summertime; I recall a very sweaty walk up to George Schaller’s former research base in Wolong one summer afternoon. It was baking. The upshot is that these bears can handle a little heat, and Bai Yun has been very comfortable.

We still haven’t had the opportunity to take the new cub out of the den for its first exam. Bai Yun has been leaving the den, though not yet for the long periods we need to see before cub exams begin. That could change at any moment, based upon her needs, so stay tuned! Until that first cub exam, we won’t have a way to determine the gender of this youngster.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Furry and Fine.


Yun Zi and the Box

Yun Zi eyes his next activity.

There was much to see at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station on Independence Day. Yun Zi was being his busy self, playing with enrichment and lounging in his hammock while snacking on some bamboo. The keepers gave him a box filled with herbivore biscuits. At one point, he picked up the box with his front paws and began to spin it around with his back feet, on a mission to pour the biscuits onto the ground. He succeeded after several attempts.

After an afternoon nap, he climbed down from his tree and into his hammock. Surrounded by a large amount of bamboo, he began to feast on some large bamboo stalks and leaves, delighting all of our guests. What a way to spend the Fourth of July!

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi: Busy Panda Boy.


Gao Gao and the Tub

Gao Gao

Bai Yun and Gao Gao were enjoying themselves Thursday afternoon at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station. Gao Gao had received a bin full of fresh pine shavings as his enrichment. He REALLY enjoyed himself! He was rolling around in the bin, rubbing the shavings all over his head. He even took a nap in there for a bit but then crawled out and moved to his favorite napping spot behind the tree. In the evening, he returned to the tub and sat in there, eating some bamboo. Gao Gao was also vocalizing quite a bit that day. Our guests were very excited to see him.

Bai Yun slept about half of the afternoon. Once the keeper replenished her food, she was up and about. On the hunt for her favorite snack, red apples, she vigorously climbed the tree stumps, which impressed all of our guests. After snacking on the apples and carrots for a bit, she placed herself atop her rock cave with very large pieces of bamboo to dine on.

By the end of the day, our giant pandas were still happily eating their bamboo, a perfect ending to a perfect day at the San Diego Zoo.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Scent Marks.


Yun Zi’s Spring Break

Yun Zi

Yun Zi is currently enjoying a change of scenery, where the grass is greener and the trees are in bloom. The 111-pound (50kg), 3-foot-tall (when standing) young adult is trying out new climbing challenges in one of the exhibits that is visible to the public (and one that has a better camera for all his fans at home!), the one he first saw as a young cub. He will temporarily have access to this space, depending on Bai Yun’s breeding time. Please be patient with our Yun Zi as he will have a slow acclimation to this exhibit.  He will still have access to an off-exhibit area while he gets used to the new exhibit and dealing with his paparazzi.

Yun Zi is also moving forward with his training for the hearing study.  He is currently learning how to be patient and to sit with his chin on a small shelf.  The next step will be to target (touch his nose) to a red circle when he hears a sound. This study will help our researchers determine his range of hearing. He is an extremely intelligent panda, and he challenges my patience as his keeper and trainer. Yun Zi takes his training extremely seriously and is always ready for a training session.  I am excited that we are working toward including him in the hearing study.  I am extremely proud of him and excited to see him excel like his sisters Su Lin and Zhen Zhen.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Panda Keeper Day, Part 2

Yun Zi has fun every day!

Be sure to read Panda Keeper’s Day.

Ideally, there are two keepers who start the morning shift at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, but sometimes scheduling permits only one. The panda care team also has a late keeper, the shift varying throughout the year as daylight and the Zoo’s operating hours change. Currently, the late keeper arrives at 8:30 a.m. and may participate in the panda hearing study, which usually starts at 8:45.

During the panda hearing study, one keeper enters a large wooden box where a camera and sound equipment have been placed. The box is located at the end of a tunnel through which the pandas are moved. A researcher stands at a table just outside the box, monitoring the panda’s reactions to tones of different pitches. The panda is expected to rest its chin on a small platform, and then touch its nose to a round target when it hears a tone. The purpose of the study is to test the range of pitches that pandas can detect. This project was made possible by the keepers training the pandas to sit still at the chin rest and then to react to a tone.

As mentioned in my previous post, deer are also a part of the panda keeper’s responsibility. Currently, the species are western tufted deer and Siberian musk deer, housed in five different exhibits. The next priority is to service these animals. It takes one keeper nearly two hours to do the basic feeding and cleaning of these exhibits. If there is no time for additional tasks, such as providing fresh hay in their shelters, then the keeper can return later in the day. By the time the deer are serviced, it’s usually lunchtime for the early-shift keeper(s).

While one keeper is servicing the deer, the other one or two are cleaning the bedrooms to which the pandas had access overnight. Currently, we are collecting urine in Su Lin’s bedroom for hormone analysis of a maturing female. There are small holes drilled into the cement floor of the bedroom, surrounding the drain. These holes catch urine from the slight slope of the bedroom floor as the liquid moves toward the drain. Unfortunately for our purposes, she does not always urinate in the bedroom!

Preparing the pandas’ bamboo diets is the next priority. The pandas are fed three times each day. Their mid-day bamboo, evening bamboo, and the next day’s breakfast bamboo are prepared. Based on the recommendations of the Zoo’s nutritionists, each panda has a target weight range of bamboo for each feeding. The morning’s feeding is fairly heavy, because the pandas are hungry first thing. The mid-day feeding is the lightest because we want the pandas to shift later for cleaning and receipt of the last feeding, which is the heaviest because it must tide the bears over until the next morning. Each bamboo bundle contains at least three species of bamboo and is a mixture of leafy bamboo and sections of culm, the thick stems that contain a lot of starch for the bears. The completed bundles are stored in a large refrigerated cooler, along with the supply of harvested bamboo, from which the bundles are made. The bamboo is harvested by a hard-working colleague in the Horticulture Department, a full-time job!

Is Yun Zi supervising or preparing to pounce?

By this time, it is generally time for the mid-day feeding. Each bear is shifted off exhibit so that the keepers can remove feces and the morning’s bamboo and place new bamboo, biscuits, and produce. If the pond has been dirtied by the bear, it will be quickly flushed and refilled. As with the morning and later feedings, if the cub comes to the ground, he will be placed into the tunnel.

At this time, the keepers may do training with one or more of the pandas. For example, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will be sent to China some day, and they must be habituated to their transport crate. This process includes closing the animal inside and making noise in the area and moving the crate around while observing the bear’s reaction. The process is a gradual one, so these manipulations become a normal part of the bear’s environment without undue stress. There may also be training for the hearing study. Zhen Zhen is new to the study and was often put through her paces before beginning actual data collection. Gao Gao has received some training toward the hearing study; Bai Yun was trained for the study, but needs some review, having not participated while she was busy raising Yun Zi. There are also routine behaviors that may be trained or reviewed, such as open mouth or sit or down or placing an arm into a metal sleeve in preparation for a blood draw.

Check back soon for Part 3 of a Panda Keeper’s Day!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Who is Where?!

I thought that since we have moved some pandas around here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, I’d give you an update on everyone’s whereabouts. Now in our two off-exhibit classroom enclosures we have Gao Gao and Zhen Zhen. Gao is not going to be moved into the main viewing area right now; he is still undergoing training with our keepers for the hearing study we are doing (see post Panda Care). Gao is still practicing going to a set target when asked and sitting in one spot for an extended period of time.

Zhen Zhen is in the exhibit that Bai Yun and Yun Zi were in; like Yun Zi, this enclosure was where she made her public debut two years ago. She has been relaxing and is doing very well. Zhen loves climbing, and we are curious to see what happens when she sees and smells a male (her father) on the other side of the wall.

Su Lin started walking around her exhibit constantly a few weeks ago and rarely sleeps during the day. We think that these could be early signs of estrus, and we are watching her closely and taking urine samples. We have not heard anything about when she will be going to China, and so we haven’t started working on her training for her trip. She is, however, doing a wonderful job participating in our panda hearing study, and we are very happy that she has managed to stay focused on this for us.

Bai Yun and Yun Zi are fantastic! Bai Yun has definitely gotten back into the swing of being on exhibit for the public and has even remembered where we usually hide her treats. The cub has discovered how high he can go up into the tree now, and he’s also discovered that we can’t reach him up there, and neither can Mom. He has come down to nurse, though, and he does play with Mom. And now with an even larger exhibit to run around in, he has been having a blast. Keepers will continue to go in with the cub so that he is familiar with us; this will also help condition him for when we begin to train him. Please remember that Bai and Yun Zi do have access to their bedroom, so if you don’t see them right when you come in, please be patient!

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


Pandas: From Both Sides

panda_exam9_2For a few years now, I have been a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station and have enjoyed watching pandas go through different stages in life as well as their day-to-day changes. I have always admired our keepers and researchers at the Zoo for what they do for our animals here and what they do for the conservation community. Our keepers must do cleaning and feeding on a schedule as well as be incredibly observant of their animals and noticing changes in behavior. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of that and learn valuable lessons from our Panda Team.

Several months ago I was asked if I would be interested in helping our keepers out when they were short handed and needed some help. I jumped at the opportunity! Part of a keeper’s daily routine is cleaning bedrooms and enclosures, and in that routine a trained eye comes in handy: an animal’s droppings can tell more than you think. Their diet is monitored and recorded at every feeding: how much went in and how much is left over. These bears go through different weather changes and even life changes, so keeping track of diet and weight is vital.

Every morning when I arrived I would assist with getting treats ready for the day, weighing Bai Yun and Gao Gao, and feeding bamboo out to both. Both bears were checked each day to see if behavior or physical appearance was altered at all. But I have to say that helping care for Bai Yun with her new baby has been a major highlight! Kathy Hawk (senior keeper) has been with Bai Yun since she came to San Diego in 1996, and watching them interact together shows how much our keepers really put into our animals’ welfare. Every morning Bai Yun appeared at the window of her bedroom ready for her breakfast; she knows to go inside so we can clean her sun rooms and put out breakfast and is so patient.

Each bear has their own personality, and working around Su Lin and Zhen Zhen has only reaffirmed this for me. Su Lin was the first cub I have watched grow from start to present day, and standing next to her with only a fence between us reminds me how much time has gone by. Su Lin often will play “hard to get” to come into her bedroom, but then again some days she can’t wait to go inside. Cleaning the front enclosures, you see and look for things that sometimes you may not notice looking from the guests’ point of view. Su Lin has a knack for being rather hard on the tree in her exhibit. While cleaning, we look at the plants growing and the climbing structures and make sure that there is nothing in the exhibit that Su Lin can remodel.

Zhen Zhen still blows me away when I realize that in just two years she has grown so much. Her evening bamboo is usually spread around the exhibit, and for some reason she loves to leave her droppings in the most difficult places for us to get to. I’ve always joked that she makes keepers work that much harder for a truly clean enclosure, and even though she has never encountered her father, we do see some behaviors that are so similar to her father, Gao Gao. Seeing these behaviors from the narrator’s point of view is one thing, but actually working with a bear while she performs these behaviors is even better!

Overall, these bears are truly amazing to watch up close, and working with a great staff has made the experience even better. All I have to say to our loyal followers on the panda blog posts and Panda Cam is that you have nothing to worry about: our keepers are and will continue to watch over the bears.

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


Routine? What Routine?

Bai Yun April 15

Bai Yun April 15

After all the excitement of last week’s mating season here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, you would think that we, and the pandas, would be settling into a nice, regular routine. But no, these bears are keeping us on our toes, as is everything else around here.

Bai Yun and Gao Gao are still in the main viewing area and back to their usual eat-and-sleep schedule (as regular as that can be with unpredictable animals). It’s obvious that mating season is well and truly over, for Bai and Gao’s interest has waned visibly. We are expecting to begin rotating pandas, with Bai Yun eventually going into seclusion in the back area later this spring or early summer, but the protocol for that has not been determined. That may be decided later this week with the actual rotation beginning somewhat later; as always, these decisions are made by the research and animal care teams and can change without notice, so keep watching Panda Cam and see if you can determine when the switches are made.

The installation of the bamboo chiller progresses nicely, with the last of the racks being made this week. It’s not quite finished, though, which gives our guests a little while to watch the process of bamboo prep from the viewing area, something we’ve all enjoyed. It will be better for the keepers and the quality of the bamboo to move into the back area and the new chiller, however, and around here, it’s all about the pandas. The panda keepers have asked me to give those of you who contributed to this project a great big “THANK YOU!” It’s going to be a huge asset to this area and your favorite bears!

As if that was not enough news, our little girl, Su Lin, is growing up: she’s having her first, possibly preliminary, estrus. (Think “panda puberty”). All of those behavioral indicators (the restlessness, loss of appetite, energy)  are there, and she had her first vaginal swab. (This procedure will be important as Su Lin continues to mature, since it can be an indicator of readiness for mating.) It is sad, though, to realize that yet another of the cubs is becoming an adult. Sigh. They grow so fast, don’t they? And yes, she’s three and a half years old, reaching maturity perhaps a bit earlier than “average” but the same age as her half-sister, Hua Mei, was when she began to mature. A family trait, a result of superb nutrition, or the warm Southern California environment? Who can say, but this is yet another panda question still to be answered.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.

Update: Starting Thursday, April 23, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and Gao Gao will rotate into the north main viewing exhibit serviced by cameras 1, 2, and 3. Each rotation will be for two weeks. Su Lin will be first, with ZZ scheduled to go in that exhibit May 7.


Slowly, Slowly

Slowly is how things here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station seem to be progressing these days; perhaps not as quickly as we’d like, but a bit forward nonetheless. The large cement pad for the bamboo chiller is poured and cured, the wall and ceiling panels have arrived, and one by one they are being assembled into this state-of-the-art chiller. The outer coating of the panels is stainless steel, protected by a white plastic shield for assembly, and the interior is a high-density foam material, only about two to three inches thick.

Once it’s assembled and the plastic removed, it should resemble a giant rectangular ice cube, gleaming in the sun behind the exhibits. (There are the exhibit bedrooms between it and the exhibits themselves, so it’s not likely to be visible from the viewing area.) It appears that assembly is the easy part, however, and it could be another week or two before all the refrigeration components are put in place, and the unit is ready to fill with bamboo.

Also going slowly is Bai Yun, whose body is in no rush to begin estrus. It hasn’t been that long in the grand scheme of things since weaning Zhen Zhen, and Bai is taking her time getting the hormones moving in the direction of mating season, if at all. She has continued to display some behaviors that might indicate estrus is coming, but then settles back to her eating/sleeping routine. This is not a bad thing, since we’d like to be sure that she’s regained her pre-cub weight and is well rested before any possibility of a pregnancy. Keep in mind, though, that female pandas may skip an estrus after weaning and, although Bai Yun has never done so, it’s always a possibility. And so we continue to watch and wait.

Occasional quick visits to Su Lin and ZZ indicate that all is well with them. Su Lin is becoming quite the near-adult and so resembles her mother from the rear that it is difficult to tell them apart without knowing who is where. ZZ, however, is still cub-like in her demeanor and behavior. She now weighs over 100 pounds (45 kilograms), and retains the playful inquisitiveness. She has discovered “the spot” in the Chinese elm tree and can sometimes be spotted napping there above the fence line, like her brother and sisters before her. It’s nice to watch the family legacy live on.

And Gao is his sweet, charming self, but has taken to napping behind the climbing structure in the center of his exhibit, essentially out of view: not considerate of our visitors, but perhaps a bit quieter for him on these busy Spring Break days.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.