This update was written by panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
It has been nearly a week since Mei Xiang and Bao Bao were separated, and we are happy to report that they are both doing well. With any major change in life, there is an adjustment period, but each of our female pandas are settling in and moving forward in the next phase of their lives. As we had expected, weaning was a much easier process for Bao Bao than for her big brother Tai Shan back in 2007. More independent all along than her brother, we have heard less contact calling from Bao Bao, and overall little reaction to her new solitary lifestyle. That being said, there are some vocalizations between our pandas, and that is to be expected. In the wild, a female cub would venture off on her own, away from her mother completely. In captivity, it is not possible to completely move a weaned cub out of earshot, and they do sometimes call to each other and react to each other. Our adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian vocalize to each other from time to time as well. The advantage to having Bao Bao near her parents is that she may be able to observe breeding behaviors from them that may help her to be a more successful breeder when she moves to China. We expect Mei Xiang to come into estrus this spring, and accordingly, we are seeing some pre-reproductive behaviors from both her and Tian Tian—more patrolling, less interest in food, increased scent marking and vocalizing, etc.
As everyone is well aware, we have experienced both an ice storm and a snow storm in the Washington, D.C. area within the last week. While the giant pandas are well-equipped for such weather, we humans sadly are not! There are many snow and ice removal activities that need to be worked into our routines here at the zoo, that are not a normal part of our days. Keepers have to chip away at ice that builds up and prevents gates from operating normally. Our facilities staff work round the clock to clear the snow and ice from the park so that we can open walkways to our visitors in a timely manner. Even the bamboo that so beautifully surrounds our panda exhibit pops and snaps loudly as it bends under the increased weight of the ice and snow. Giant pandas rely heavily on their sense of hearing, so they are even more keenly aware of the "new" sounds than we are! Over the last week, we have seen all three of our pandas react to the different sounds around them, and each copes in their own unique way. Viewers may have seen Bao Bao retreat to her safe haven of her hemlock tree well into the night, Mei Xiang running around and vocalizing, or Tian Tian sitting in the snow listening with ears up on high alert, before flopping over for a nap! As I type this in the panda keeper office, I can hear snow removal activities in the background. The pandas, who are all currently indoors, can hear it too, as their hearing is much better than ours, and all three have acclimated to the sounds—they are all eating bamboo, not reacting to the sounds at all.
It has been quite an eventful week here at the panda house, but a good one. All three of our solitary bears are eating well, sleeping well, interacting with their keepers and their environment in species-appropriate ways, and even taking a bit of time to stop and enjoy the snow. These are the behaviors that we keepers, who know the pandas the best, rely on to tell us that all is well in there world. And by every account, it is!
This past weekend brought lots of news for giant pandas around the world, and our three bears at the National Zoo. China's State Forestry Administration released the results of the latest giant panda survey, which found 1,864 bears living in the wild. That's an increase of 16.8 percent since 2003, which is great news for the species.
"As the only species of bear listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and an icon for species conservation, it's vital for scientists to keep monitoring the wild population of giant pandas. Every panda counts," said Steve Monfort, director of Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute. "We're encouraged that the wild population has increased 16.8 percent to 1,864 pandas and not experienced a decline since the 2002 census. Building upon four decades of collaboration with our Chinese colleagues, we're continuing to build scientific partnerships focused on habitat management, wildlife health and training the next generation of conservation scientists."
In collaboration with Chinese scientists, the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are conducting studies to save giant pandas, their habitat and the other endangered species that share it. We are committed to giant panda conservation and will continue to support animal breeding and the development of panda scientists both at the National Zoo and within China. High priorities include working in China to develop effective corridors between panda reserves, restoring habitats, addressing wildlife diseases and working with government agencies to build the capacity to improve management of all wildlife.
Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away from the mountains of China in Washington, D.C., big changes were afoot at the panda habitat. Bao Bao is now fully weaned and living independently from Mei Xiang, as she would in the wild at this age. Keepers have been working towards this for more than six months, always taking their cues from Mei Xiang and Bao Bao. Over the past several weeks the two became comfortable spending six hours or more apart each day. The final step in the weaning process was to get Mei and Bao Bao comfortable spending their nights apart. On Friday and Saturday a member of the panda team stayed at the panda house until 10 p.m. Each night, a keeper monitored both bears carefully to see if either was anxious while in separate enclosures. Just to be on the safe side, Mei and Bao Bao were given access to each other before the late night keeper left at 10 p.m. Finally, on Sunday night after two calm and uneventful nights, the panda team decided it was time to see how Mei and Bao would fare spending an entire night apart. Our panda biologist spent Sunday night in the panda house monitoring both closely, but once again neither seemed to mind being apart. Bao Bao even played with some of her new toys in the middle of the night. The keepers reported that the entire process went smoothly.
Our keepers will be nostalgic for the days when Mei and Bao Bao spent all of their time together, but they are very happy and excited for Bao Bao to continue to grow and thrive on her own. She has officially graduated from a cub to a juvenile panda!
It’s hard to believe, but Bao Bao is almost 18 months old! Eighteen months is a big milestone for giant panda cubs because they stop nursing and start living separately from their mothers. Bao Bao started the weaning process naturally a few months ago, and now she’s eating significantly more bamboo and solid foods. She also eats separately from Mei Xiang and spends about 6 hours separated from her each day. They will spend increasingly more time apart until Bao Bao is living on her own. Bao Bao has been doing well during the time she spends apart from Mei. Our panda team expects that the process will be complete in early March.
Last month our panda team and veterinarians performed an ultrasound along with human cardiologist Dr. Rosenthal on Mei Xiang as part of a routine checkup. She is in great health. Mei usually participates in ultrasounds when the panda team is monitoring her for possible pregnancies, and the cardiac ultrasound was performed much the same way. She lay down in the training chute while a keeper gave her honey water, a favorite treat, and Dr. Rosenthal looked at her heart and abdomen. She also allowed Dr. Rosenthal to perform the ultrasound while she was standing. The panda keepers have been working with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to perform procedures like ultrasounds, blood draws and routine exams without anesthesia for a very long time, and the pandas are always given the choice whether or not to participate. They almost always choose to participate. Dr. Rosenthal brought all of his own equipment—the same equipment used to perform cardiac ultrasounds on humans—for the exam. And since the ultrasound for Mei was successful, the team will follow the same protocol for an ultrasound with Tian Tian during his next routine checkup.
Today was Bao Bao's first time playing in the snow outside! And she was quite the little snow panda. She spent her morning tumbling down the hill in her yard, climbing and sliding down trees and pouncing on her mom Mei Xiang!
Bao Bao also did the panda version of snow tubing, which we caught on video!
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