The Cub's 16th and 17th Months
December 1: Wild, Exuberant Play
Tai Shan was successfully vaccinated on Wednesday morning. He stood in the training cage like a little champ, and did not utter even the slightest protest. He received his rabies and distemper shots, one in each hind leg. Tai Shan enjoys the squeeze cage as much as his parents. After the vaccinations, he hung around to show off another new learned behavior, "stand," which requires him to stand on his hind legs with his paws on the bars. Tai seems to be engaged in his training now. He is also learning to target on the scale. We are using a clicker for his "bridge," which lets him know when he has done a behavior correctly. He seems to have finally connected the clicking sound to the food treat that follows. We decided to use a clicker instead of a whistle, so as not to drive Mei crazy when she is nearby, and also to have him trained with the same bridge they use at the breeding center in Wolong.
The water was turned off this morning in the new enclosures. The water system is off for the winter, now that cooler weather has settled in. Yesterday, when the temperature reached 70 degrees, Tai Shan decided it was the day for the complete, pool-immersion experience. After getting soaking wet, he went on a wild trip around the enclosure, throwing himself up into the air and crashing down, then jumping up and running off again. Getting wet seems to elicit wild, exuberant play in all our pandas and is great fun for everyone. Another reason to be impatient for spring.
November 27: Tai's Training
Tai Shan weighed 80 pounds this morning. Several times over the past week, Tai has been observed interacting with Tian Tian at the mesh. We find Tai watching Tian intently, and when Tian approaches, Tai vocalizes, sniffs, and stares. He chirps ever so softly at Tian, who will pause briefly to stare back and sniff Tai over, before moving on. If Tai had leaf-eater biscuits for ears, we think Tian Tian might show more interest. Keep in mind that panda fathers are not at all involved in raising their young.
We have been working with Tai Shan over the past three weeks to get him ready for his first annual vaccinations, for rabies and distemper. It is hard to believe that a year has passed since his last round of cub shots. Tai now enters the training cage and targets in a standing position, while he is being poked with the end of a syringe, as well as with a needle. This type of preparation, through daily training sessions, helps to prepare everyone, animals as well as staff, for a successful procedure.
November 16: Pandas and Bamboo
Tai Shan has started to eat bamboo culm over the past month. This is the very hard stalk of the bamboo that should be inedible to all life forms. Pandas find this part of the plant highly palatable, intermittently throughout the year, for unknown reasons. It could be that it actually tastes different! At other times, they eat the ever-so-slightly more digestible leaves. Bamboo consists of mostly fiber and silicates, and contains very little nutrition. No matter how many years we work with them, watching pandas eat is a constant source of amazement. Twenty million years ago, when the giant panda diverged from its bear ancestors, there must have been some fierce competition from other carnivores, or an extreme famine, for this bamboo habit to have evolved. To top it all off, when pandas defecate, it comes out just about the same way it went in!
November 9: Endless Learning Opportunities
Tai Shan, who is 16 months old today, weighs 77 pounds. What a larger presence he brings to the enclosures. And what an annoyance he is to Mei when he wants to play and she does not. It is still a pleasure for us to stop and watch them interact with each other.
Our understanding of the development of panda cubs grows with every observation and shared experience. At the foundation is a set of goals supported by collaborative projects among facilities that manage pandas in the U.S. and China. One specific goal is to collect data on panda cubs that remain with their mothers and are weaned through a more natural process. Panda cubs may remain with their mothers in the wild for up to, and sometimes beyond two years. In one study conducted in the wild, male cubs lingered longer than females, often past two years of age. The Zoo Atlanta mother/cub study data collection ended on October 15.
We started a new study, a nursing watch, last weekend. We will collect data two weekends per month to learn about Tai’s nursing frequency and duration. This watch, conducted by volunteers, will run continuously from 7 a.m. Friday morning through 7 p.m. Monday evening. This means more quality time for our nighttime web cam viewers! In January, we will look at his nursing frequency, as well as hormonal data, to determine the progress of his weaning. One specific hormone of interest is urinary cortisol. Increased corticoid levels are associated with the maintenance of lactation in mammals. We have documented this phenomenon for pandas, and Mei’s levels have doubled since Tai's birth. We have endless learning opportunities with Mei Xiang and Tai Shan. This information will also help us begin to plan for the 2007 breeding season.
October 17: David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat Opens
We all have decided that giant pandas have the most amazing media karma. The staff get lots of credit for placing their bamboo and treats in very strategic places, but when the cameras appear, the pandas move into their places to make movie magic. They were in full form for the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat and Asia Trail press preview, last Wednesday. Tai Shan satisfied the first round of cameras by choosing to walk to the front of the exhibit and eat a carrot in a full frontal and seated repose. We then watched Tai Shan climb up the cork (Phyllodendron sp.) tree located front and center of the prime viewing area, to embrace it in deep sleep, his face resting on his crossed forepaws. To our amazement, Tai held this position facing the cameras, for over an hour! Prior to this event he had spent only a short minute climbing in this very tree. In order to respond to the needs to film a panda awake, Mei Xiang held an audience by the window across from red pandas, while dining on bamboo.
During several Good Morning America segments yesterday, both Mei Xiang and Tai Shan appeared, as if under remote control, to rest or sit in perfect panda poses and eat bamboo. It is particularly nice to see Mei and Tai through the glass, only inches away from our guests. They are used to people behind glass, about three feet away, in the indoor exhibit, and do not seem to mind that there are no guardrails outdoors. This morning, at the public grand opening of the new habitat, they performed admirably as well.
Currently, Mei and Tai are in the new yards from about 8 to 10:30, so they can return to their original exhibits to be viewed by our guests. Tian goes out from about 11 to 4. After all the Asia Trail debut events end this week, we will begin to rotate the pandas into the new yards on a less predicable—and thus more stimulating—schedule. Mei and Tai will continue to be kept separate from Tian. Male pandas are not involved in the care of their cubs. They may never encounter each other in the wild.
Tian Tian’s testosterone levels are beginning to rise so he is increasingly restless and needs to wander. Tian has unfortunately also developed a stereotypical behavior that involves rocking his mouth over his forepaws and foaming from the mouth. Stereotypical behaviors are not unusual in this species an may result from early weaning and unstimulating environments. We are hoping that his having new and varied yards to explore will reduce the frequency of this behavior. Tian will also get additional enrichment and daily training sessions. He will still be separated from Mei and Tai by the mesh windows, but he is able to socialize with them. Tian will also spend a lot of time investigating Mei’s and Tai’s scent marks. Recently, we watched Mei and Tai scent mark over almost all of Tian’s marks on the back wall of his original yard (Yard 1). Tai followed Mei and scent marked with his leg cocked just like his mother.
From October 19 to 29, a team of Zoo staff will be in China conducting a Behavioral Enrichment Workshop at the Shanghai Zoo and Shanghai Wild Animal Park. This workshop will address enrichment for birds, carnivores, and primates, and include exhibit makeovers with behavioral data collected, pre- and post-enrichment. We will also equip a workspace for making enrichment items. Other topics will include the use of volunteers to support enrichment programs and animal husbandry and management training. This will be a great opportunity to share ideas about management practices and creating enriched environments to promote normal behavior in zoo animals. more about enrichment
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