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2015 Panda Updates

June 2

biologists with Tai Shan in China

This panda update was written by biologist Laurie Thompson.

As part of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute's ongoing collaboration with our Chinese panda colleagues, panda keeper Becky Malinsky and I were able to spend 10 days visiting three giant panda bases earlier this spring. The first two we visited, Bifengxia and Dujiangyan, are managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. At the Bifengxia Base, our goal was to learn about how they prepare for breeding season and hopefully see some natural breeding. Breeding season is managed a little differently there since they have many more pandas. We spent four days observing the process of moving males in and out of the breeding facility in order to find one that the female found suitable. On our final day, we observed a breeding attempt between Xiu Lan and Wu Gang. Unfortunately, the pandas did not breed naturally. We were also able to see our Chinese colleagues perform an artificial insemination.

After leaving Bifengxia, we went to the panda base in Dujiangyan. Dujiangyan is a research facility closed to the public, and it is quiet and very beautiful. Our first panda cub Tai Shan lives there. (Though, he's not a cub anymore.) We were able to visit with both Tai and his keeper Lui Yi. Tai Shan did not recognize our voices, but that was not unexpected. It has been 5 years since he moved. We were thrilled to see, that he seems to adore his keeper. And Pan Pan (who is Tai's 30 year-old grandfather) lives right next door to Tai! We toured the rest of the center and saw more giant pandas and red pandas. Our next stop was the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where we received a tour of the giant panda and red panda exhibits. Shortly after we got home Mei Xiang went into estrus and now we are just waiting to see if we'll have a new cub this summer!

tai shan in china

April 27

After carefully monitoring the behavior of both its giant pandas and female Mei Xiang's (may-SHONG) hormones for weeks, the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute's team of reproductive scientists, veterinarians and panda keepers performed two artificial inseminations within the last 24 hours. The first procedure started at 6 p.m. on April 26, and the second began at 7:30 this morning, April 27. Daily hormone reports showed Mei Xiang's estrogen levels peaked Sunday morning, an indication that she was in estrus and able to become pregnant.

For the first time this year, scientists used semen collected from a giant panda living at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, China. The chosen male panda, Hui Hui (h-WEI h-WEI), was determined to be one of the best genetic matches for Mei Xiang.

Although the Zoo's male panda Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN) is not as genetically valuable as Mei Xiang, he is still important to the panda population. Scientists also used high-quality fresh semen collected from Tian Tian for the artificial inseminations. The first procedure used a combination of sperm from Hui Hui and Tian Tian. The second procedure also used thawed sperm from Hui Hui and sperm refrigerated overnight from Tian Tian. If Mei Xiang gives birth, scientists will use a DNA test to determine which male sired the cub.

Mei Xiang was put under general anesthesia for the non-surgical artificial insemination(s). Each procedure took about an hour. The Zoo live-streamed portions of the first procedure on Twitter using Perioscope and live-posted to Instagram using #PandaStory.

Jon Ballou, a research scientist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), made the breeding recommendation. He makes the breeding recommendations for all eligible giant pandas living in human care. The sample from Hui Hui was frozen and flown from China to SCBI's cryopreservation bank at the National Zoo. The Zoo chronicled the journey on Instagram using #PandaStory.

Mei Xiang is genetically valuable and has two surviving offspring, both the results of artificial inseminations. Tai Shan (tie-SHON) and Bao Bao (BOW-BOW) were both sired by Tian Tian, whose genes are well-represented in the giant panda population living in human care because his father was a very successful breeder. Hui Hui has not yet sired any cubs. A cub produced by Mei Xiang and Hui Hui would be very genetically valuable, helping to preserve the genetic diversity of the panda population in human care.

Giant panda pregnancies generally last between three and six months. Zoo veternarians will conduct ultrasounds to determine if she is pregnant. Scientists will also monitor her hormones to determine when she is near the end of a pseudopregnancy or pregnancy. There is no way to determine if a female is pregnant from hormone analysis and behavior alone. Hormones and behavior will mimic a pregnancy even if she is pseudopregnant. The only definitive way to determine if she is pregnant is to see a developing fetus on an ultrasound.

The Zoo received approval for its breeding plans from the China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which monitors giant panda research programs in the United States.

April 20

Follow our #PandaStory on Instagram or online!

Let’s talk about panda sex (or perhaps lack thereof). Panda breeding season is a race against the biological clock. It only comes once a year for 24-48 hours, and our giant panda team must be ready. Our female giant panda Mei Xiang should enter estrus before the end of May. The panda team will artificially inseminate her with frozen-thawed semen. This year for the first time, our panda team may use semen collected from a male panda living in China. With only 2,256 pandas on the planet, 392 of which live in human care, genetics play a big role in breeding season. The best genetic match for Mei Xiang happens to be in China. So, what’s a scientist to do when the best genetic match for your female panda is on the other side of the world? Fly frozen semen to the intended female. For the next 24 hours we’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at the trip. SBCI scientist Caitlin Burrell is making the trip from the Bifengxia panda base with the cargo. #PandaStory #InstaScience

A photo posted by Smithsonian's National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

April 1

Bao Bao explored her new yard for the very first time this morning! She spent over an hour outside checking out her new digs. Keepers say that she was cautious at first (which she often is with new experiences), but explored every nook-and-cranny of the yard. She's still learning the lay-of-the-land in her yard, and touched the hot wire, which was not unexpected. Keepers have tagged the hotwires with yellow tape to help her identify them. Bao Bao actually seemed to be much more wary of some yard guests. Two wild ducks decided to hang out in her yard for a little while this morning. She was a little unsure of them and gave them a wide berth. Wild ducks sometimes stop in the panda yards for a waddle or paddle in the pools in the panda yards, but they don't pose any danger to the pandas. After Bao Bao had checked everything out she decided to head back inside. The keepers expect that she will start spending more and more time in her yard as she gets acclimated to it.

March 23

This update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

Hopefully Friday morning was the last hurrah for winter 2014-2015. While our pandas enjoy the snowy weather and all the tobogganing opportunities that it can bring, it also makes things more challenging logistically. While long-time National Zoo panda followers recall our first cub, Tai Shan, spending most of his independent days in panda yard 3, we wanted to update it for Bao Bao. However, bad weather has stalled progress on our "Bao Bao proofing" operations many times in recent weeks. We have learned over the last 19 months that she looks for different opportunities for adventure than her parents or her big brother. Even with the weather delays, we expect work to be completed sometime next week. In the meantime, we rotate three bears between two yards on many days. Mei Xiang seems to be much more content now that she is back in "her" part of the panda house, and Bao Bao is certainly making herself at home in enclosure 4. As many parents in our metropolitan area are experiencing with their own children, sometimes Bao Bao can get restless inside, but overall she seems to be making the most of it, and enjoys watching the progress of the work from the runway that leads out to her yard. Bao Bao has located some preferred napping spots in enclosure 4, and will no doubt find some new favorites in her new and improved yard this week! No need to fret about the hemlock tree—after breeding season, we will have the flexibility to rotate all of the pandas through all three of the yards, just as we always have. (But they will continue sharing our two available yards for a little bit longer.) Bao Bao's reunion with her favorite tree will most likely be marked with a nice nap for old time's sake!

March 6

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!

Bao Bao

March 3

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!

February 19

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.

Bao Bao

January 6

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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