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Friday, January 7, 2011

Mei Xiang & Tian Tian

"It is a happy and hopeful new year at the panda house. For the past two years Mei Xiang, the National Zoo's female giant panda, has come into estrus (her ovulatory period) in January. The average female panda experiences estrus between March and May, and Mei Xiang was on this more typical schedule up until 2009, when she surprised us with a very early estrus.

When females are in estrus, it's as though someone pushed a fast-forward button. They become very restless and pace, pausing to scent mark (rubbing their tails on surfaces) every few steps to announce their impending brief two-day window of fertility. One particular vocalization called a bleat is also heard during this time. A bleat is a contact call between pandas, heard when they interact with each other (or their keepers). Mei Xiang usually only emits this low, soft, sheepish sound when she's ready to mate. In 2010 her first recorded bleat was followed by peak estrus, just 11 days later. This year her first bleat was heard 20 days ago!

Tian Tian is ready, and no guess work is required. Unlike Mei, Tian bleats all year round to the keepers on a daily basis to indicate his need for food or attention. As a male panda his male hormone testosterone rises in early winter in preparation for the breeding season. Tian becomes extremely restless and patrols his yard expectantly. If only it could rain female pandas! "

I got this information from the National Zoo e-updates.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bamboo products have exploded in the market recently........

"Bamboo products have exploded in the market recently. Bamboo is being used in flooring, textiles and all sorts of household items. Its popularity is based on its reputation as a sustainable material. It's a hardy plant that can thrive without the use of pesticides and in many climates and it grows quickly, so what is cut down can be easily replaced. At least that's what has been assumed."

"It turns out that bamboo's popularity has led to it being over-harvested and not only is it not being replaced quickly enough with new growth, but many species are on the verge of extinction. Even though it grows quickly, turns out it's very hard to propagate from seeds. "

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wei Lan Update:

Since the cub is growing and does not need Lun Lun to hold him constantly, she sometimes sleeps away from him. This could entail just turning away from the cub without leaving the nest box or leaving the nest box entirely to lie down on the other side of the den. Recently, she has also occasionally slept in the adjacent den. She is never too far away and does not spend long sleeping away from him. This change in behavior is completely normal for a mother panda with a cub this age. The cub usually rests quietly or does his exercises (i.e., pushing his chest up with his front legs) while Lun Lun is away. However, despite Lun Lun’s latest step towards independence, she still seems to prefer sleeping with her cub.

Our little cub is growing quickly, but so is his big brother, Xi Lan. Xi Lan’s current weight range is 55 to 59 kg. He is also noticeably longer and taller. After a leisurely summer he has hit a growth spurt. When the cool weather hits, panda appetites increase. The pandas come out of their sleepy summer lethargy and eat, and eat, and eat. Both Xi Lan and Yang Yang are tucking into their bamboo with vigor. This is reflected in their evening weights which are significantly higher than their morning weights. Xi Lan is 2-3 kg heavier in the evening and Yang Yang is 5-10 kg heavier. Lun Lun also has her full appetite back and is eating with her usual gusto.

Given the cub is doing so well and life is returning to normal for the giant pandas and keepers, we will revert to our previous schedule of providing updates on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting this week.

During the vet check on Thursday, I was able to see the cub up close for the first time. For the previous exams, I stayed with Lun Lun to make sure she was okay while her cub was away. It's always surprising to me how much bigger giant panda cubs appear in human hands compared to when they are with their mothers. He is still very small compared to Lun Lun, but when the vet is holding him he looks much bigger. His fur has become much thicker and looks fuzzy now. It will continue to grow longer and more wooly over the next several weeks. He was quiet and calm during the exam, but he did lunge forward on the table once. He will likely do more of this when he can see better. As he gets bigger, he might be more vocal and feisty during exams. His older siblings did. Lun Lun was very calm while he was away. I'm not even sure she realized he was gone. She used the time to have a big meal. She went right to him when we opened the door between the dens, picked him up, licked him, and then they had a nap.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cubbie Update

        Lun Lun continues to spend more time away from the cub, not only to eat but also to rest. This evening Lun sat up without the cub, then rested against the nestbox.  The cub was cute. As soon as he realized that Lun wasn’t there, he started to vocalize and wiggle his way to his mother. I was mentally joking to myself that he was saying “mom, mom, come back, mom, mom, where are you I need you” as he edged ever closer to her.  He probably moved about two body lengths to get there, and may have slightly startled Lun. She seemed surprised that the cub was touching her on her rump, but willingly turned around to take care of his needs. After he was settled, Lun went off to get some bamboo.

Because it was so chilly this morning, I had the luxury of collecting data on Yang Yang from inside the building (he was in one of the dayrooms). As an added bonus, while I collected data, I also got to watch the cub for an hour. For the first few minutes Lun rested with the cub on her forearm, which gave me a great view of him. Soon, though, Lun went into the adjacent den to eat and left the cub to rest by himself in the nest box. He was quiet the entire time, but certainly wasn’t still. As the keepers have reported, he’s doing a lot of stretching and flexing, so when the time his right, he can begin scooting across the floor with purpose. I find that giant panda cubs are most entertaining once they begin to walk, but there’s something nice about this stage, too. It’s similar to the stage that human infants go through before they learn to crawl. Just like with human parents and infants, it’s easier now for Lun, because the cub can’t go too far too quickly. Once he becomes mobile, Lun will have more to keep track of as he begins to test his environment. 

There has been nothing too exciting to report in the last few days that I have seen.  I am sure it was mentioned in years past, but I often hope that either Lun or the cub does something to give me a good update.  Well, I have been waiting but neither wants to cooperate for my benefit.  Lun continues to eat well, as noted by her eating over 5.5 kg of bamboo last night.  This number will continue to increase as she spends more time away. She typically can be relied on to eat 7-8 kg, if not more, if she likes the bamboo.  The cub is still typically quiet, while Lun is eating. Unless he is on his back.  There are guaranteed to be some loud vocalizations if that occurs. Hopefully by my next update, Lun or the cub will give me a good idea to write about.

Lun Lun is starting to spend significantly more time away from her cub. She sometimes spends this time away eating as has been described in previous updates. But in the last few days she has also spent some of her time away resting. This is normal behavior. Lun Lun did this with her other cubs at around the same age. Wild giant pandas mothers have to spend time away from their cubs traveling to bamboo feeding sites and consuming bamboo. Lun Lun only has to travel a few feet to reach her bamboo, but she still spends time away. The cub doesn't need her to stay warm anymore and he is normally quiet while she is away. I think it is good for him to have this time alone, because it's normal for giant panda cubs to be alone for increasingly longer stretches of time. In the next couple of weeks, I expect Lun Lun to start to become a little restless about being confined to two dens. Then we know it's time to give her more space. We start by giving her access to another den farther away from the cub. Then we begin giving her access to one of the indoor exhibit rooms. Lun Lun will gradually increase the amount of time she spends away from her cub, but she will still check on him regularly and continue to keep him clean and well-fed.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Today is the day of the next cub exam! Most panda cubs partially open their eyes at just over one month of age. Our little boy cub is now within this time frame, so eye opening is the next milestone to be excited about. After his eyes begin to open, they will likely be fully opened within two weeks. So far I haven't seen any sign of him attempting to spread those lids, but it could be any day now. It seems that he is growing so fast every time I see him. I'm ready for him to open those eyes and see the world for the first time!

Since Lun Lun and the cub are doing so well and there is nothing new to report today, I hope no one minds if I use this update to talk about the cub’s big brother, Xi Lan.  I have previously mentioned that I am training Xi Lan for voluntary blood draws. Last week, one of the Zoo’s vet techs, Sharon, and I worked with Xi Lan by actually inserting a needle into his forearm. He was not thrilled by this and gave Sharon the evil eye when she did it, but he held his arm still, at least initially. We quickly found out that Xi Lan takes after Yang Yang – his blood flows slowly. Xi Lan did not want to hold as long as we needed him to for his blood to reach the syringe connected to the butterfly needle. We tried a few more times because Xi Lan was eager to continue training, but were not successful in collecting blood.  He presented his arm and held the position nicely, but just not quite long enough yet. This training is done through a barrier using positive reinforcement. Xi Lan is able to choose whether he wants to participate or not. He can walk away at any point in the session. The only consequence is that he does not receive the food treats used for reinforcement at that time. But he does receive that food later in the day. We will continue to work with him, so stay tuned for further updates on Xi Lan’s training!
  The cub has been on the move, well at least somewhat.Last night, I was able to see him wiggle his way around, trying to get his feet beneath him. Twice while Lun was away he was like a little worm. He moved at least one body length the first time, and then over two body lengths a second time. He may have been on the hunt for his mother. Another time, when Lun had rolled away from him, he squirmed towards her until he was able to touch her. Lun seemed unaffected by this.The cub was quiet, and so there was no need for her to be alarmed. He is just working those muscles, so that they get big and strong to pester his mother in a few months."

Cubbie Update

"In the last two days, Lun has had some very long feeding sessions.  Up until then, a good session consisted of about only 10 minutes, and then she would head back to the cub.  She always seemed a little anxious while eating, so this probably hampered her eating for longer periods of time.  The last two days, though, she has had multiple sessions over 25 minutes, and a few were close to 45 minutes.  Her appetite must be coming back full force now.  Luckily the cub has been quiet while she is away the majority of the time.  If he happens to vocalize, Lun seems basically unconcerned, though she will take some glances at him from time to time.  These sessions were probably also longer due to the fact that she must eat bamboo before she gets any of her biscuits, and then they get tossed into the den where she must find them.  This is all good to see, as the more that she eats, the more milk that she can produce."
      "Lun Lun has always had a strong appetite. She is notorious for going all day eating instead of napping like the boys. Tonight is proof that that hunger is back. While the baby boy is sleeping away, Lun has felt free to leave him for 30 to 40 minutes to sit in the adjacent den to eat. The little cub is comfortable resting quietly in the hay, occasionally wiggling around. This time apart is important for both cub and Lun because it’s when he can learn to be more independent (exercising those little legs!). And she gets some much needed meal time!"