The Cub's 19th Month
February 7: Tai and Mei Spend Nights Apart
Tai Shan has weighed as much as 99 pounds in recent days. Over the past two weeks we have gradually been increasing the time that Tai Shan is away from Mei Xiang at night. As of February 5, Tai is now completely separated from Mei for the entire night. Everything is going very smoothly. During this time, we are giving Tai 22 pounds of bamboo each evening, and he is doing his very best to eat it all by the next morning. This separation coincides perfectly with what has been taking place naturally over the past several months.
We have recently watched Mei cuff and paw-swat Tai similarly to the way she lets Tian Tian know she is not—NOT—interested in interacting. Mei was in true form yesterday when we tried an introduction to Tian. Tian tried to initiate play but Mei cuffed and swatted him, before chasing him away across the yards. Tian ran as fast as he could to get away from her. She punctuated her actions with moans and growls.
We still know very little about how pandas interact in the wild. It may be that Mei is being protective of Tai Shan, even though he is separated. It makes sense that females would chase other pandas from their home range when there is a cub around. It was so cold yesterday that Tai Shan actually declined to go outdoors. When Tai heard the commotion between the adults, he climbed the mesh on the patio and perched on an overhead conduit. Neither the consoling voices of his keeper or a treat would bring him down. It was only when Mei returned indoors and bleated to him that he descended.
We are fortunate to have large enclosures, which permit our adult pandas to choose to interact or chase each other in order to remain distant. We are able to provide an enriched and varied experience for them through these interactions. Our previous pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, continued to play when they were both in their 20s.
January 29: Tai Shan's Weaning
On January 21, after letting Tai Shan outdoors, we observed him investigating one of Tian Tian’s scent marks on the back wall of Yard One. We heard the same chirp vocalization that we hear when he sees Tian Tian. Scent marks are used to communicate information to other pandas. This dark and sticky secretion is rubbed high and low on walls, grass, logs, and just about any surface the pandas can reach in the exhibit. Using their very flexible bodies, pandas can scent mark from a squatting position, while they are standing with a leg cocked, and even while in a hand-stand.
For several months, we have been watching Tai Shan becoming less dependent on Mei Xiang. The large outdoor enclosures provide our pandas the choice to separate themselves to eat and rest alone. Tai Shan is a very confident and comfortable cub on his own, exploring and even remaining outdoors long after the adults come indoors.
We have begun to manage this separation and encourage weaning by gradually increasing the time that Mei Xiang and Tai Shan remain apart. By assisting this weaning process, Tai Shan will continue to convert to his natural diet of bamboo. We’ll keep a close eye on Mei Xiang’s and Tai Shan’s behavior, and monitor daily changes in the cub’s weight to be certain he is consuming enough bamboo to support his continued growth.
Tai Shan is supposed to return to China sometime after he turns two years old. However, we expect that the cub will, at a minimum, be here throughout the summer and early fall. Whether he stays longer is a subject of current negotiations between China and the Zoo. We will keep the website updated to report any changes.
January 23: Mei and Tian's Reunion
On January 12, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian spent one hour together! This was their first time in the same enclosure since June 2005, when Mei Xiang started to den up during the last month of her pregnancy. Although it had been 18 months, they behaved as though it were just the other day.
We had decided to separate Mei and Tai after she finished eating and before Mei fell asleep. Mei is difficult to rouse from her naps and we wanted to keep the time frame of this first introduction short.
The pandas were opposite each other at the mesh at the scale area when we let Mei inside to interact with Tian. Food had been scattered in enclosure two for them, and guess what, Tian walked right past Mei to go inside and eat! Mei followed him, and they polished off the leaf-eater biscuits within a few minutes. Tian then walked over to sniff under Mei’s tail and try to initiate a play bout. Mei swatted at his hind legs, squealing and almost pinned him to the ground at one point, before they both reared up on their hind legs and wrestled. Mei continued to swat at Tian, forcing him to run to the back of the enclosure and up over the rockwork mountain to den two.
After scent marking the den, he returned to the enclosure to settle in for a meal of bamboo, within about four feet of where Mei was sitting. Tian reclined on his back with his foot propped up by the door to enclosure three, as he shredded bamboo culm. Mei sat on the rockwork and consumed her portion. When Tian was done eating he moved to the front of enclosure two to take a nap.
When Tai Shan heard the vocalizations between Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, he stopped in his tracks, listened intently with his ears forward, and ran from the training cage into the new yards. Although he was alarmed initially, he settled fairly quickly in the cork tree, eventually coming down to one of the deadfalls to rest. This type of behavior is very typical for bear cubs, who will retreat up a tree when they sense anything that is unusual and might be a threat to them.
When Mei returned to the yards, Tai briefly greeted her before they both settled around another pile of bamboo.
Tai remains very curious about Tian. Just the other day, we could not call Tai away from the mesh in the chute where Tian Tian was passing. Tai watched him intently and chirped very softly. Tian did not seem to notice. We will continue to rotate Mei Xiang and Tian Tian together for enrichment and socialization as time, and the pandas’ location and activities, permit it. Tai Shan now weighs 93 pounds, although after one recent day of feasting, he weighed 95 pounds.
January 11: Tai's Brilliance Is Reconfirmed
Tai Shan weighs as much as 89 pounds. Now that he consumes a significant amount of bamboo, it is not unusual for his weight to go up or down as much as a pound within a day. It all depends on how much food he has taken in or processed out the other end, before he is weighed. Now that it is freezing cold and winter, all the pandas are stripping the culm, or the stalks, of the bamboo. There are piles of yellow-green peeled stalk everywhere!
The nursing study we conducted in November shows that Tai is nursing very infrequently. Over three 24-hour three-day weekend watches, the most he nursed was five times, and the average period of nursing lasted 17.35 minutes. We will be analyzing the data for December and January soon. Tai Shan is now the only captive-born cub to remain with his mother longer than 18 months. Cubs in the wild may stay with their mothers for two years or more. We have the unique opportunity to look at nursing behavior and a natural weaning process, and compare it with hormonal data related to Mei Xiang’s return to breeding condition.
Tai Shan has learned to get on the scale, stand, present his paws, and follow a target. His trainer is working on having him lie down and is introducing him to positioning his forearm in a sleeve for blood draws. All reports reconfirm his brilliance!
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