The Cub's 36th–39th Weeks
April 14: Back to His Old Haunt
Tai Shan now weighs 45 pounds. Over the past week, and with the onset of warm weather, he has retreated to his old haunt along the fence line. Until the trees leaf out, the cozy place where the hill drops off to the fence line seems to be an alternate cool spot to rest in. When he is awake, Tai spends his time tucked in on his back, juggling pieces of bark in his feet. He also has to taste everything around him.
On Wednesday evening, as Tai was walking inside like a little model of an adult, he scent marked several times on the concrete apron. Mei Xiang followed his lead and scent marked over his spots. We do not want to jinx it, but he has been coming in on his own lately, at around 5 p.m., on a regular basis.
April 11: Tai Shan Is Nine Months Old
Trees are such an important part of an enriched zoo environment for pandas. All the pandas have been spending time in the trees lately. Mei Xiang retreated up a willow tree to avoid Tai Shan's rough invitations to play. She also has been seen hanging upside down in the same tree engaged in solo play. Tai Shan used his thickly clad, evergreen larch for shelter from the recent rain. Tian Tian passed the time, on a restless day, climbing both willow trees in his yard. At one point he was opposite Tai Shan, who was resting in his larch tree on the other side of the fence. They did not seem to notice each other until much later when they were back on the ground at the howdy window in the wooden fence. Tai pawed at the mesh, while Tian sat and looked at him, with his dazed and needy gaze which is difficult for us to determine any focus. This encounter lasted only about a minute.
April 7: Panda Play
Tai Shan now weighs 44 pounds. He has transformed into a very robust and sturdy cub who is always seeking the next great adventure. Today, he climbed over the tree guard into one of the Japanese larch trees. He did this three times, staying just long enough for everyone to notice that he could. One of his other favorite pastimes is playing with Mei Xiang. Their rough-and-tumble play sessions look more and more like the vigorous play we saw between Tian Tian and Mei Xiang when they were younger. Bears do not play nice. Play behavior is a dress rehearsal for many of the skills cubs will need as adults, when their encounters may turn aggressive. Play behavior helps to further strengthen muscles and enhance overall fitness.
Mei Xiang continues to show intermittent early estrus behavior. On some days she is restless and scent marks her enclosure. On one morning recently, these behaviors seemed to draw Tian's gaze from afar. We do not see any evidence, behaviorally or hormonally, that Mei Xiang will experience a full estrus or ovulatory cycle. Usually female pandas will skip a year when they are rearing a cub. There is a lot of variation when it comes to hormones and reproduction among females within a species. It would really be a new event for this species if Mei came into estrus again this year. We are all still counting on the year off.
April 4: Tai Time
Tai Shan has had a few more late evenings up in his sycamore tree. After we set our clocks ahead Saturday night, our cub stayed on Tai time. On Sunday evening, he was in his tree until 9:30 p.m. keeper time, as he was following his pattern of coming down at 8:30. We all know we are in for a long day when he comes down to play and nurse after 2 p.m. Tai usually spends about four to six hours napping afterwards. The day after the time changes, it is rather amusing to see the looks on our animals' faces when we awaken them on the new time schedule. They adjust just like we do, fairly quickly.
March 28: More Climbing, More Bamboo
Our adventurous panda cub did quite a bit of tree climbing over the weekend. On Saturday, Tai Shan stayed high up in his new favorite tree until after the evening set in. He has also been enjoying bamboo. Adult giant pandas eat up to 40 pounds of bamboo each day.
March 24: Tai Eats More Bamboo
Tai Shan seems to be eating bamboo on a regular basis, although we cannot tell how much. He puts everything in his mouth, just like any youngster. What he would like to do is get ahold of a fruitsicle and have it all to himself. When Mei gets her fruitsicle, she has to fend Tai off in order to eat it. She has perfected the art of fencing, being able to keep him en garde, one leg length away, with her foot. Tai also likes leaf-eater biscuits. He occasionally finds one that Mei has missed. We do not give him his portion of these yet, as we want him to focus on and consume a diet of bamboo, first. Tai has mastered climbing his special tree carrying a piece of bamboo, but after a few nibbles it usually falls to the ground and he loses interest.
March 22: Scent-marking Fest
There was a regular scent-marking fest in the scale area recently. First Tian Tian went over to be weighed and marked the scale. When Mei Xiang and Tai Shan were shifted into the area they were quite interested in Tian's messages. They both sniffed intently and marked the scale. Tai spent about three minutes on this activity. It will be interesting to see what the adults' hormones are doing this year. Very few mothers with cubs have been kept in proximity to males during the breeding season. It seems that Tian Tian may be less restless this year than in previous breeding seasons. Is it possible that Mei's presumably lower estrogen levels are having an effect on his rut behaviors?
On March 17, Tai weighed 39 pounds. He climbed all the way up the mesh in the keeper area and back down with ease. On his way down, he used his mouth to grab the mesh just like Mei does. It took Tai Shan three days to discover the new panda-accessible trees. He climbed the evergreen all the way to the top and buried himself deep within its thick, cozy branches, where he could be seen only from the roof. After two hours he came down to wander and play, nurse, and eventually return to his favorite river birch perch.
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