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Polar Bears: Oh, Miss Chinook!

ChinookThe summer is just flying by—it’s hard to believe we are already into August! As promised, with the beginning of August we are once again looking into ultrasound exams with Chinook. Can it already be nine months since our last ultrasound? Last Friday we had an appointment with our veterinary staff to begin getting our beautiful bear back into the swing of things and, to be honest, get all of Chinook’s caretakers back into the routine as well.

The process of performing an ultrasound with a polar bear is not quite as straight forward as you would think. No wonder Chinook is the only polar bear in the universe that does ultrasound without anesthesia. First, we gather the supplies: Where did the ultrasound probe protection sleeve go? Ah yes, it was borrowed for a camel ultrasound a few months back. The ultrasound machine (a high-tech, portable Aloka) fit perfectly, protected under the counter in the polar bear kitchen for the last few months. And, of course, the all-important gel! Plus squirt bottles to mix the gel with water to help view through Chinook’s lush belly fur. Lastly, the most important item—creamy peanut butter! This is the favored treat made into liquid that our Chinook loves to slurp while her belly is rubbed during ultrasounds.

Friday afternoon arrived and all was ready, with Chinook sitting regally in her training crate watching all the set up. She had freedom to move anywhere else but seemed content to watch. All was finally in place for the first session in nine months. We were prepared that perhaps it might take a bit to refresh Chinook’s memory and regain a bit of her enthusiasm for the behavior. Boy, were we WRONG! At our first ask of her to turn around and lean into a roll-over, she gave a look that said “What took so long?” and immediately rolled over perfectly. Not even a second glance as the watery gel was applied and then followed by the ultrasound probe. Chinook simply rested, enjoying her grapes, fish, and the all-important creamy-peanut-butter “soup.” Oh, Miss Chinook, you are truly an incredible bear! What an ambassador for your wild counterparts, and what a thrill it is to work with you.

So what did we see with the ultrasound exam? As our veterinarian said, “All the right abdominal stuff.” We absolutely don’t expect to see anything this early. The ability to ultrasound Chinook for possible pregnancy is a path to get many polar bear reproduction questions answered. We know so little about the implantation process and fetal growth. This information will add to what we need to know to protect critical denning habitat for polar bears in the wild. We will be able to better know the critical times to keep these areas safe.

The news coming from the Arctic is not great these days. In June, we saw the fastest loss of ice ever measured. July brought the second-lowest ice extent and the beginning of the old ice melt. It is the old, multi-year ice that is so important to keeping the Arctic cold and our entire planet cool. Today, San Diego announced what an impact our community has had on improving our air quality. What a great testimony to what we can all do to help our environment! We must all continue to keep working as individuals, groups, communities, nations, and the world to keep our planet safe.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: “Who’s Who”.


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.


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.


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.


Touring Fun in Phoenix

Keeper Amy Alfrey, Rick, and friends are ready for their close-up!

Friday’s workday started off early for us as we headed out to do six interviews at three different TV stations.

Our first two interviews at Phoenix’s CBS station KPHO were early, but went very well. The morning crew there was a lot of fun and very interested in our animal ambassadors. One of the anchors was a little less than thrilled that we had a snake with us, but he warmed up to Tex (our milksnake) eventually. We did our two interviews with them and then it was off to the next studio.

At KNXV, local ABC-TV, we met a wonderful morning news team that was thrilled to have us in their studio. Dassie, our rock hyrax, had a great time exploring the studio between interviews. He is such a character, inspecting the set and the cameras as if he was the floor manager there at the studio!

We rounded out our morning with two interviews at KTVK’s “Good Morning Arizona” show. Honestly, I am not sure which of the interviews was better. The first interview included the milksnake, and that got a really good response from the anchor, who did well but did seem a little uneasy with a snake in her studio. The second interview was great, too. That one included Dassie, our rock hyrax, and Sooky, our koala. You can imagine all the ooooos and awws that filled the studio when these two came out to meet everyone!

Once we wrapped up our television interviews, we were off to do a Web-video interview at a local radio station. It was a taped interview that will be posted later next week. Then we were back on the road to Chandler, Arizona (right outside of Phoenix), to do a two-hour presentation for the public. We were fortunate enough to have AAA host us at their office there. It was a great time with all the kids and adults that showed up to see our animal ambassadors.

We are finishing our day with one last presentation at the Squaw Peak Terrace at the Biltmore in Phoenix. It has been such an amazing and busy day, and so much fun! The people of Phoenix have been so welcoming and so wonderful; it has made this crazy busy day go by quickly and easily.

Tomorrow, after breakfast, we will repack, load ourselves up in our vans, and head back to the San Diego Zoo.

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s ambassador.


What Is an Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?

Good question, and pretty easy for me to answer because that’s me, Rick Schwartz! I have been a keeper at the San Diego Zoo for over eight years, working with a wide variety of animals and people. Recently I was given the opportunity to shift my focus from keeper work to ambassador work for the Zoo. As Elephant Odyssey’s ambassador, I get to travel around San Diego and the country as a representative of the Zoo. My job is to share with everyone anything and everything that is Elephant Odyssey.

That said, I need to tell you that this year the San Diego Zoo is going to open the largest exhibit area in its history: Elephant Odyssey. No pun intended, but this area is huge, and the animal care sections are going to be like nothing else out there! Of course, the Zoo is known for the exceptional care it provides to all of its animals, and Elephant Odyssey will set the bar even higher. As for guests visiting Elephant Odyssey, you will be immersed in a bioclimatic zone that will bring you into the environment AND take you back in time, too. Okay, okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. It’s all so exciting and there’s so much to share, I just can’t wait to tell everyone!

You’re probably thinking, “Do we need an ambassador? Everyone already knows about the San Diego Zoo.” As true as that may be, there are a lot of interesting facts that people may not know. For instance, did you know that elephants under our care range in age from 1 to 54 years old? Our youngest African elephant at the Wild Animal Park, Kamile, is a vibrant 1 year old and our oldest Asian elephant, Cookie, is a mature 54 years old. Did you know that the Zoo’s conservation efforts span the globe? We are conducting habitat studies in Africa, releasing California condors to the wild in North America, studying koalas in Australia, and so much more! Check out our Web’s new conservation section.

There is so much information to share with everyone about the Zoo, Wild Animal Park, and San Diego Zoo Conservation Research! Honestly, my enthusiasm for getting out there and talking to people tends to get the better of me.

Let’s face it: I’ve got a big job to do, one of elephantine proportions! The Zoo has a lot going on all the time, and this year will be more eventful than ever. Between the opening of Elephant Odyssey and the many conservation projects we’ll be highlighting, I am going to be a very busy ambassador, working hard to get the word out to everyone.

For now, as I trade out my zookeeper tools for a laptop computer, I ask that you keep checking our Web site. You’ll find new blogs popping up here and there and new videos coming online; a whole page dedicated to Elephant Odyssey should be debuting this spring.

Rick Schwartz is Elephant Odyssey ambassador for the San Diego Zoo.


Little Guenon Gets Acquainted

Janet puts Gig's heat disk in a soft blanket.

Janet puts Gigi's heat disk in a soft blanket.

Installment #2
Read Installment #1: Little Guenon Gigi

When Gigi was two weeks old, we had essentially eliminated all the obstacles of her socialization. Gigi was eating and gaining weight well, was bottle adapted, and could hold her body temperature outside of the incubator environment. She still relied upon a heat disk to keep her toasty when outside or in a cool room.

Gigi is gently placed in her transfer crate.

Gigi is gently placed in her transfer crate.

On December 4, 2008, Gigi made her debut. She was bundled up and placed into a transfer crate in the nursery. Her heat disk was added to keep her snug in the nursery cart that we use for transporting neonates around San Diego Zoo grounds. When Gigi arrived at the Wolf’s guenon exhibit, her family showed up right away at the gate; they were alert and curious. I sat by the wire mesh of the gate leading to the exhibit, removed Gigi from the crate, and placed her on my lap with the heat source close by.

For her part, Gigi was quiet and a bit unsure, holding on to her favorite stuffed animal and looking around. Immediately the family jockeyed for position, shoulder to shoulder so each could get the best view. Soon they began to reach through the wire mesh, pulling on the blankets and probing for Gigi. Mom Fifi was the most eager, gently touching Gigi’s head, lifting her tail, and inspecting her fur carefully. The reception, which lasted 45 minutes, was resoundingly positive. Mom never left my side while I sat with Gigi. This introduction continued for several successive days. As we observed the progressive positive interactions, we began to formulate a plan. Fifi was showing maternal interest in Gigi, and since Fifi was still nursing Gigi’s sister, Mimi, she still had milk. We decided to try a full reintroduction to the guenon group to see if Fifi would begin to carry and feed her youngest daughter.

On December 9, a full tactile introduction was attempted. Since the group was so attentive and gentle through the gate, we felt comfortable taking the reintroduction to the next step. So, instead of sitting by the gate as usual, guenon senior keeper Leticia Plasencia placed little Gigi in one of the animal bedrooms alone. We set Gigi up with a “safe home base.” She had her favorite stuffed surrogate tied to the wire mesh so the family couldn’t take it away. Gigi also had her nice, cozy heat source wrapped in a familiar blanket to provide warmth during the introduction. Leticia opened the door, allowing the whole group inside for full access. We were hoping that Fifi would pick up and carry her baby.

We were on hand when the family was allowed accesss into the bedroom area. That day the family never left Gigi and chose to hang out with her in the bedroom, but Fifi never did really pick her up. There were a few motions that looked like she may have tried, but the two never quite accomplished it. Instead, there were more of the same enthusiastic investigations by all members of the guenon family. Big sister Mimi was a guenon of interest at first. We were a bit worried that Mimi’s earlier behavior with her little sister would carry over, especially if Fifi decided to pay more attention to this new baby. Although Fifi did make a few rough grabs, she was largely only curious about the new arrival.

As it turned out, we didn’t get everything we were hoping for that day. When we removed Gigi to return her to the nursery, we had not witnessed a major event, but we had launched a new and important process. Now that we knew Gigi was safe with the family, we could make our visits much more significant by letting Gigi spend part of every day outside the care of humans, surrounded by her guenon family. Gigi’s introduction made giant leap forward.

Check back soon for my next blog, where I’ll talk about the Gigi’s introduction into the exhibit.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Weaning Zhen Zhen: Step 1

Yesterday, February 2, 2009, marked the first day we closed the doors between giant panda Bai Yun and her fourth cub, Zhen Zhen. From 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the two were separated, each to their own exhibit. This is the first step of a gradual progression toward the weaning of Zhen, facilitating her social and nutritional independence from her mother.

The previous week of acclimation to the new exhibit space, formerly occupied by a rotation of either Gao Gao or Su Lin, went very well. Zhen took to the space with her usual exhuberance. No nook or cranny was left unexplored, no tree unclimbed. As expected, she enjoyed the new surroundings and spent a lot of time in the area resting and playing, with and without her mother.

Yesterday, she did notice that the door was closed. She checked the separation door and the door to her bedroom area a few times, as if to confirm that she wasn’t able to go through. Keepers report she did not appear anxious, but motored about her exhibit a bit, playing occasionally, before settling into a nap. Since nursing sessions with a cub of this age generally occur at about one bout per 24 hours, there isn’t much nutritional impact of these separations from Zhen Zhen’s perspective. The social separation is also not unusual, given that Zhen often removes herself from mom’s grasp by climbing high to rest for several hours. As a result, we didn’t anticipate this first step would be a difficult one for either bear.

For her part, Bai Yun noticed the closed door as well. However, within a few short minutes she returned to doing what she is ready to do now full-time: taking care of Bai Yun.

We will continue to hold at this step for several days until we are sure that both bears are appropriately adjusted.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo.


Polar Bear Breeding Season

Inquiring minds want to know…yes, we are in polar bear breeding season! And yes, Kalluk and Chinook (pictured) have been, ahem, “amorous.” Phew! Now for some of the details…

We began to see behavior changes in mid-December that indicated Kalluk was having some hormonal fluctuations we attribute to breeding season for males. Chinook followed the beginning of January with her behavioral changes. We know quite little about polar bear breeding and exactly what occurs when, but from past experience it would seem the females fluctuate in their cycles. The fluctuations occur over a one- to two- week period with a 24- to 48-hour period of intensified behavior. The fluctuations show in behavior changes such as sleepy, grouchy, rambunctious, and solicitous! It seems this can last for a few months. Potentially, Kalluk and Chinook could be in this until June!

One of the changes we expected we’d make was to remove Kalluk’s sister, Tatqiq, from the other two. We are happy that everyone is doing really well together and even still playing together on some of the days the hormones don’t seem to be so high!

So at this point we won’t be taking Tatqiq out of the mix except for variability. We are keeping Chinook and Kalluk together 24 hours a day now. We watch them closely for any changes in behavior. At some point, Chinook will decide she is no longer interested in Kalluk’s advances, and then we’ll again make some changes depending on how each bear is behaving.

If this all sounds a bit like a roller coaster, you’re right! Like a rollercoaster we are having steep climbs, fast downhills, curves, slow-paced meandering, and surprises every day. Also, like a roller coaster at the end, we expect to say “wow! What a great ride!” We’ll keep you posted.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch the polar bears daily on Polar Cam!


Sun Bear Cubs: Snips, Snails, Sugar, and Spice

We were able to pull the sun bear cubs this morning to have the veterinarians examine them. We are happy to announce that Marcella has both a boy and a girl in this litter! Staff had suspected this for some time but needed to wait for confirmation from our veterinarians to be certain. (See previous blog, Wider World for Sun Bear Cubs.)

Now three months old, our little bears are doing very well. Their exploration has gotten bolder, and now they frequently make trips out of the den to play in the adjoining bedrooms. Sometimes, Marcella brings them out when she leaves the den. Other times, they tumble out under their own power. They can walk quite efficiently and are able to climb atop low objects such as the drinker or a small log in the bedroom. Negotiating the steps back up to the den, however, is still a challenge: Marcella usually has to assist when the cubs are ready to go back to their home base. The little girl, especially, seems to know when she needs her nap; she has been seen heading back to the den all alone to find her comfortable place to rest.

Both cubs appear to have robust personalities. The male, it turns out, was the infant we have been hearing with the louder voice, more likely to be crying out to mom in the den. The female has the softer voice and was more calm and restful in the den. All along, the male cub appeared larger than the female, a finding confirmed when we began to weigh them a few weeks ago. One might expect that the larger, louder cub would turn out to be bolder, but so far the little girl seems able to hold her own with her sibling. She solicits play from him, growls at him when she has had enough, and has a mind of her own.

The cubs were first weighed at 73 days of age: the male weighed 11.3 pounds (5.15 kilograms) and the girl weighed 9.13 pounds (4.14 kilograms). This is an earlier weigh-in than our other two sun bear cubs. Bulan’s first weight (see blog, A Sun Bear Boy!) was taken on day 82 (10.76 pounds or 4.88 kilograms), and Danum (see blog, A Comparative Approach) wasn’t weighed until day 142 (21.8 pounds or 9.9 kilograms). Interestingly, despite the fact that they are twins, both current cubs are quite large. Even our smaller female is likely to have been at least as large as Bulan if she had been measured on day 73. Marcella is clearly producing some high-quality milk!

But, alas, as good as that milk might be, the grass is always greener on the other side. This week, keepers have reported seeing the cubs mouthing Marcella’s kibble. Soon, they will be stealing her veggies and treats, and she will compete for food with her babies. I have been surprised that in the past, Marcella doesn’t fight her youngsters for her food while they are young. She usually concedes an item a cub has claimed. Not until the cub is more than a year of age does she typically take her food back from a rambunctious cub. Staff is always monitoring to determine if a dietary modification is necessary, and once the twins are eating solids routinely, we will have to ensure that Marcella is getting plenty, too.

There is a lot of development still ahead for these youngsters before they are capable enough to be safe on exhibit. Climbing the high perches and navigating some of the steep slopes of the exhibit require more skill than these babies currently have. Look for them to make their debut in a few months, when staff is convinced they are ready for that challenge.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo.