Things have been getting interesting here at Bi Feng Xia. So far, four females have given birth and the cub count is up to seven (three sets of twins)! I have been trying to collect as much personality data on the females before they get close to giving birth, so I have been spending a lot of time up at the breeding center (also so I can sneak peeks at the newborns with their mothers!). Nearly a month ago, I put a basketball into Gong Zhu’s enclosure and recorded her behavior for the following hour. She was by far the most interested in the ball Continue reading
Everyone at the base has been busy the last couple of weeks preparing for the arrival of the first panda cubs: All the male pandas have been moved out of the breeding center to make room for the females that the staff believes are close to giving birth, the breeding managers are spending more and more time up at the breeding center checking up on the females, and the keepers are taking turns working the graveyard panda watch, to make sure someone is close by at all times in case a cub decides to arrive.
Last Wednesday night, Xi Mei was the first female to give birth this year. She gave birth to twins, one male and one female, in the middle of the night with no complications. If a panda gives birth to twins in the wild, it is thought that the mother is forced to pick one to feed and nurture because it would be nearly impossible for her to raise two cubs by herself (though recent research by our collaborators at San Diego Zoo have found evidence that females actually do rear two cubs at once). At the panda center, if a female panda gives birth to twins, like Xi Mei, the keepers will take the second cub, wrap it up in warm blankets and transfer the newborn to the panda kindergarten where it will be placed in an incubator. The keepers will switch out the cubs every couple of days to ensure that both the cubs get essential bonding time with their mother.
When I heard that Xi Mei had twins, I went up to the breeding center to see if I could see them. One was being kept out of sight in the panda kindergarten, but I hoped I could catch a glimpse of the cub that was still with its mother. The door to Xi Mei’s enclosure was closed and the windows were covered with curtains so no one could see inside. The only way to see her and her baby was through the video feed in the keepers’ office. Unfortunately, since panda cubs are so small when they are born I could not see Xi Mei’s baby; she was cradling it in her arms the entire time and it was impossible to see the tiny baby through her thick fur. But you could tell that it was there. She kept staring down and licking the little baby in her arms. I am hoping that I will be able to see them soon though! The keepers think that Shui Xiu will be the next one to give birth any day now. I will keep updating as more and more cubs start arriving.
I started the panda “personality” study last week and I have been introducing a basketball into the pandas’ enclosures and recording their reactions. So far most of the subjects have been females (the birthing season is fast approaching and I wanted to get as many females done before that happens), however I did have some extra time at the new breeding center and decided to try my luck Mei Sheng. He is a male panda that was born at the San Diego Zoo in August of 2003. He was sent to the Wolong panda center in 2007 and moved to the CCRCGP after the 2008 earthquake.
Most of the female subjects sniff around and approached the basketball within the first minute, pawing at it slightly and following the ball around, but lose interest within the first 7 minutes and fall asleep in a corner. Prior to introducing the basketball to Mei Sheng, I hypothesized that a male would be more aggressive towards the ball than the females had been.
I had one of the keepers place the ball into a portion of Mei Sheng’s enclosure when he was not around, then we opened the doors to let him in. As soon as he approached the door, he started sniffing heavily, when he saw the ball he jumped back at least a foot from where he was standing. I have never seen a panda move that fast. It took him several minutes before he would attempt to approach the basketball and avoided it the majority of the time. He spent most of the hour that I observed him pacing around the room and vocalizing, which is unusual because he is normally not a vocal animal, nor does he pace as much as other pandas. I felt bad because he seemed to be anxious the entire time he was in the enclosure with the ball, I did not mean to cause him any distress! After the hour was up, a keeper opened up the door and Mei Sheng quickly left the room. Out of any panda that I have studied so far, Mei Sheng is the only one that has been fearful of the ball. I really did not expect his reaction to the basketball, it was very interesting to see how he behaved because it was close to the opposite of what I was expecting. I am anxious to observe the other male pandas to see how their behavior compares to Mei Sheng’s (and the females too!).
I have been studying the stereotypic activities of the pandas here at Bi Feng Xia for the past several weeks, keeping track of what kinds of stereotypies each panda exhibits and the amount of time they spend on these behaviors. So far, Yao Yuan is the only panda that has not shown any kind of stereotypy or quasi-stereotype during the times that I have observed her. Yao Yuan is a wild born female panda, the keepers at the breeding center estimate that she was born around 1994, making her about 18 years old. She was bred earlier this year and if she is pregnant, the keepers believe she will be the first panda to give birth, probably in mid-July. Like most pandas, she does spend the majority of her time eating and sleeping, but when she is active (usually early in the morning), I have not seen her pace, sway or do any of the head tilts that are characteristic of some of the other pandas.
The other day during my morning observation, Continue reading