March 2010 Update: Billie Jean Gives Birth to Twins
See video of mother and cubs, and photos of mother and father.
Read a cub update from mid-March.
The National Zoo's four-year-old Andean bear, Billie Jean, recently gave birth to twins while denned in a secluded section of her indoor exhibit. Staff believe she gave birth to the twins about 24 hours apart; the first was born at about 8 a.m. on January 14.
Animal care staff have monitored the cubs via closed-circuit infrared camera and vocalizations heard through a sound monitor. The staff was able to distinguish verbal squeals and cries from one cub the first morning and determined two distinct, simultaneous cries the next day, indicating the birth of a second cub. Mother and cubs are not expected to be on exhibit for visitors until spring, however, during their denning period, the National Zoo has added a special bear web camera for public viewing (in late April, the cubs and their mother were relocated to another area that does not have a cam).
Signs indicate that Billie Jean, a first-time mother, and the cubs are doing well. They are the first Andean cubs born at the National Zoo in 22 years and the only surviving Andean cubs in a North American zoo since 2005. Coincidentally, the last surviving Andean bear cub born in North America before these two was their mother, Billie Jean.
“From the den camera, we can observe a very attentive mother bear and two small cubs that are moving, wiggling and thriving,” said curator Craig Saffoe. “Vocalizations that we hear are loud and strong, which is another indicator that the cubs are healthy. So far, things are shaping up as we had hoped: mom is doing everything extremely well on her own to rear these cubs, and there is no need for human interference at this point.”
The Zoo’s veterinary staff and animal keepers completed several ultrasounds on Billie Jean in December that showed two growing fetuses. However, like the giant panda, Andean bears can resorb one or both of the fetuses, resulting in only one or no cubs. Animal keepers continued to closely listen to the sound monitor for two distinct, different and simultaneous vocalizations in the critical days after the births to confirm both were alive.
Newborn cubs weigh ten to 18 ounces at birth, and they are practically bald, toothless and blind. Their eyes generally open at four to six weeks of age, and they take their first steps soon after. Generally, the cubs do not leave the safety of the den until they are about three months old. Zoo staff will not be able to determine the cubs’ gender until veterinarians conduct a brief medical exam, which may be in April or May. Staff ares working daily to slowly but consistently expose mom and cubs to more light, sounds, and people.
“In the wild, Andean bears mate in early summer, and females give birth in the winter. This past June, natural mating occurred between Billie Jean and the Zoo’s male Andean bear, Nikki. Nikki, 18, came to the Zoo severely overweight three years ago and was put on a new weight-loss plan developed by the Zoo’s nutritionists and maintained by his keepers. Thanks to the new plan, Nikki was able to safely lose almost 200 pounds in a year—boosting his physical fitness and ability to be considered for breeding.
“All of our hard work with getting Nikki back to optimum health, as well as our training with Billie Jean to voluntarily work with us to obtain ultrasounds really paid off,” said animal keeper Tracey Barnes, the first to confirm the multiple births as she stayed around the clock in the Andean bear building observing the camera and sound monitors.“We were able to successfully breed these bears and are now seeing a wonderful mother at work raising her cubs. We are very proud of the whole process and thrilled to see the cubs growing stronger each day.”
As their name suggests, Andean bears live in the Andes mountain range and outlying mountain ranges, from western Venezuela south to Bolivia, with sightings reported from eastern Panama and extreme northern Argentina. The Andean bear is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened animals.