August 28, 2013
Last Friday evening, the world watched in wonder and anticipation as the giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy panda cub at the National Zoo. As zoo keepers work to monitor the health of mother and cub, we were able to speak with panda keeper Juan Rodriguez about looking after the pandas, a recent trip to the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China and what the birth of the new cub means for a continued collaboration between the two facilities.
I understand that Mei was very protective of her cub yesterday, and that she didn’t want to surrender her for any check-ups.
She was doing what a mom should be doing; she’s being very protective of her cub. Every once in a while, she’s re-adjusting to make sure the cub was in a good spot to be able to nurse, and slightly moving away from us in the process. We had to be very careful, and finally, since so much time was going by and we didn’t want to push the envelope, we decided to leave her alone to be able to nurse her cub in a nice quiet spot.
If she continues to be unwilling to surrender the cub for checkups, what will you do?
Right now, we’re just going to stay back and let her do her thing, and keep an eye on the cameras and listen in. We’re also going to have the opportunity to offer her a few different food choices in the next few days, so that will give us a better idea. Basically, we’re just playing it by ear on a daily basis.
Tell me about your recent trip to China.
That was an amazing learning experience on all levels. My colleague Marty Dearie and I had the opportunity to work with our panda colleagues at Bifengxia, at the Panda Base in Ya’an, China. They are the group that actually has loaned us our current giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The folks out there have years and years of knowledge working with pandas both in captivity and in their wild habitat. First and foremost, we had an opportunity to see the facility first hand. It’s located high up in the mountains of Ya’an, in a very forested area, so even though they are in a captive setting they do have a lot of natural environment around them. We got a chance to work with our Chinese colleagues who have worked with giant pandas in captivity for many years. We also saw a total of three cub births, one of which was a set of twins. We also had a chance to see how the nursery staff cares for the neonatal cubs, ranging from birth to two weeks of age, and some other cubs who were a month or two months old. We also had a chance to see one cub that was almost a year old, and a set of twins a little older than a year. There were a lot of age groups, pandas at different life stages, and seeing it all at once was an invaluable learning experience.
In addition to that, we had three different places where we worked. One was a birthing station, where there were several females—some that were pregnant, some that had already given birth. [Another] location had been specifically set aside—from what we understand, for the first time ever—for six females that were completely isolated from the public. It’s kind of a prelude to a wildlife setting. They are enclosed, but they have outdoor dens, so they could give birth outdoors and potentially raise their cub outdoors. In fact, there were two of them that had already given birth and were raising their cubs outdoors [rather than in] an indoor enclosure. So that’s going to give them a better feeling for whether or not, when the cubs get older, if they’re going to be different behaviorally, or in terms of their health; it’s real on-the-ground work that they’re doing with the giant pandas. The last place we would see is the nursery, to see how they nursed and cared for the neonatal and one-month-plus old cubs. We actually got a chance to get hands-on, being able to feed and or stimulate the cubs to help them defecate. At that age, they can’t defecate or urinate on their own, so there are several techniques that they showed us to help the baby pandas do that, in order to care for the cubs at that stage of their lives.
I heard you picked up some new techniques for handling the mother and her cub.
Most definitely. The husbandry techniques are slightly different in China, because they do have a different relationship with their pandas: they go into the enclosures with their pandas. So there is no protective contact. For us, our protocols don’t allow that; there must always be some kind of protection. That being said, we did get a chance to see how the Chinese animal caretaker staff behaves around the pandas while they are in such close proximity.
Have you heard from your Chinese colleagues on the birth of the new panda? What do they have to say?
We had a few—through translations—all congratulating us. A few have texted us a sort of congratulatory e-mail in Chinese. They’re certainly all excited for us.
What has been the most exciting part of this process?
Being able to see the fact that she gave birth; we’re all very happy, but we’re all also very guarded in our optimism, because of what happened last year. The analogy that I like to give is that it’s like that moment on a roller coaster, where you’re going up that roller coaster and anticipating going over the hill. It’s sort of like that—you’re girding yourself for going over the hill, so that is kind of where we’re at right now. . . I think that we’ll have a slight sigh of relief maybe a month from now, and then I don’t think anyone will be completely, totally, excited until after a year to two years, in terms of being confident that the cub is going to grow into adulthood.
And what has been the most unsettling?
I wouldn’t consider it unsettling, just more of a concern for Mei Xiang’s well being. During the cub’s first check up, I was one of the staff members that stayed behind with Mei Xiang to see how she was behaving, and also [to] console her while the cub was away. So I think at that stage, it was just a mom who was searching for her cub—. . .“Where’s my cub? I hear it but I don’t see it.”
She was actually scrounging in her nest to see if she had misplaced it somewhere in her nesting material. It’s a good example of how good of a mother she is. She wants to care for her young and always be attentive to it, especially when it’s vocalizing. It was mostly about keeping her calm and collected, and we were able to provide her with some fluids. We had a squirt bottle filled with honey water and would squirt it on her tongue, and she was taking that a few times while the cub was away. I think that helped to distract her for a few seconds, just enough to let her settle down. Of course, since this is a new thing we have done with her at this stage, the return of the cub was a crucial moment. She was very excited to have the cub back and we wanted to make sure we could get the cub back safely into her possession. Anticipating what she was going to do at that point was something that was heavily on our minds. And she did everything perfectly. She picked it up very gently with her mouth and put it back on her chest and presumably the cub started nursing again, so within five minutes, or less, she was calm and collected in her corner nursing her cub.
Why does it matter who the father of the cub is?
It matters on a lot of levels. I think first and foremost, because there’s such a small population of giant pandas. It’s important for genetic diversity. Knowing who the father is will determine the level of related-ness that the cub has to the overall population, which has future effects in determining who this cub, potentially when they reach adulthood, can mate with. That’s the primary level. The secondary level is because we know that the second cub that was born was malformed, it would give us a better idea to know if the fathers were the same, or if one was from one father and one from the other. And, again, keeping in mind I’m not a reproductive physiologist, but I think understanding which type of sperm sample was used—one that was fresh versus one that was frozen—would have an effect on which one was able to survive and be healthy.
Do we know how the cub will be named?
The tradition that our Chinese colleagues [follow] and we do too, is to wait until day 100. And at that point the cub can be named.
Apart from the cub’s birth, what other strategies for panda care did you take up with your Chinese colleagues on your visit?
I picked up a little Chinese, so maybe now I can talk to them a little. I’m sure Tian Tian and Mei Xiang remember a little of it, since they were born in China.
In all seriousness, I think that everything from the nursery and just being able to be prepared, if it came to hand rearing the cub. We now have experience with that. Getting our hands on a cub from a few days old to a few months old, knowing how much pressure and how to hold them properly, those are all important things to know. It’s also important knowing what are some of the cues that Mei Xiang might give us if something is not right with the cub. And also to know certain vocalizations from the cub, to know that the cub is doing well.
I understand you’ve been studying different types of bamboo and their effect on a panda’s welfare.
I can’t say much in too much detail, because I’m not a bamboo specialist. But in China, they have other varieties of bamboo, and though they feed them just about the same as we do, they have different varieties. They are fortunate that their bamboo growing season is about 10 months out of the year, whereas our growing season for bamboo shoots is about two, maximum three months, out of the year. So they have greater access to bamboo shoots than we do. We supplement with other foods, offering apples, pears, sweet potatoes and liquids such as honey water and apple juice.
What was the highlight of your China trip?
I think it was great to be able to meet our colleagues in China. Going over to China helps to reaffirm our commitment with our colleagues there and helps to give us a better understanding of the kind of work they do both in captivity and in the wild. They currently have one male that they have reintroduced into the wild, so ultimately those are the kinds of stories we want to be a part of and hear about. It’s not just reproducing cubs, it’s also about making sure that the species can exist in the wild. This is a very serious goal that we’re both committed to, and working together as one group, that synergy is great.
June 21, 2013
It was a big day Thursday for the National Zoo’s six-month-old sloth bear cub born last December–what with the climbing and exploring and posing and all. It was the debut public appearance for the Zoo’s first sloth cub born in seven years, named Hank after a vote from fans on Facebook. And he’s a bit of a rarity nationally with only 18 zoos exhibiting the species. Taking to the terrain quite nicely, he’ll now be a regular at his Asia Trail home every morning from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. In case you missed his eventful first day, here are some photos from the Zoo.
June 18, 2013
Stoy Popovich never has ridden a kayak before, but that isn’t stopping him from building one.
As the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit specialist, he creates displays and builds objects needed for the museum’s exhibitions, and when he learned the museum wanted a model of a traditional kayak used by Native hunters in Greenland, he jumped at the opportunity to piece one together.
“The project excited me because it was something new, something I’ve never done before,” he says.
The museum plans to suspend the completed kayak alongside Phoenix, its iconic model of a right whale for the reopening of “Living on an Ocean Planet,” an exhibition in the museum’s Ocean Hall about humanity’s evolving relationship with the world’s oceans. Greenland’s Inuit populations have built kayaks for thousands of years because their sleek, stealthy design makes them ideal for sneaking up on prey like seals, walruses and whales while navigating mazes of icy water.
While today the boats are most commonly used for recreation and competitions, some communities in northern Greenland continue to rely on them for hunting. Unlike popular plastic and synthetic models, Greenland’s traditional kayaks are made of a skeletal wooden frame lashed together with seal sinew and covered in sealskin. These materials make the boats light and pliable, so they are easy to cart around and capable of withstanding blows in tumultuous seas.
Popovich began the project in the winter by poking around online for instructional videos and booklets about traditional kayak building. He also consulted with Maligiaq Padilla, a Greenland National Kayaking Champion who made and donated a kayak to Smithsonian in 2005 (exhibiting the kayak is problematic because it is susceptible to fluctuations in humidity).
With limited funds for the project, Popovich got creative, scavenging supplies from around his shop. For the frame, he found sheets of ash, a highly malleable wood; to tie everything together, he dug up some high tension string. He has yet to choose a fabric for the kayak’s exterior (sealskin wouldn’t be an option even if it were lying around the museum because of ethical concerns).
The materials may not be authentic, but the process certainly is. Northern Greenland doesn’t have too many trees, Popovich points out, so Native hunters spent centuries before global commerce building their kayaks from whatever wood washed ashore around their homes—usually conifers like cedar, which is harder to mold than ash but lighter and more durable.
“We’re following that tradition,” Popovich says. “This has been a grassroots, pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps, how-the-heck-do-I-do-this kind of endeavor.”
While an experienced builder would need less than a week to make a kayak, he has taken his time, working around other projects and making sure everything is done correctly. “Every step I stop and think, okay, what’s the best way to get through this?” he says.
So far, he has nearly completed the frame by setting the keel (the straight wooden piece that runs along the kayak’s underside), soaking and molding the ribs, shaping the gunnels (the uppermost side pieces) and lashing everything together with the high tension string. The frame is customized to Popovich’s own dimensions, as practiced in the Arctic to ensure a tight seal around the opening in the kayak to fit the person’s body to keep from water coming in and to ensure optimal control.
“These things are made by the person who’s going to be paddling it, because when you’re in it, you actually become part of the kayak. Your legs and your body work with the kayak to maneuver it,” he explains.
His next major step will be “skinning” it with whichever material he chooses.
William Fitzhugh, director of the museum’s Arctic Studies Center, says the kayak will contribute to an increased anthropological focus in “Living on an Ocean Planet,” where it will be on display with a full-scale mannequin riding it. The exhibition will emphasize how connected we are to the oceans, and how greatly we can effect them with pollution and over-fishing.
“The kayak is the perfect representation of sophisticated technology developed by people who lived in a very harsh environment. They developed a craft that would be suitable for sustaining their cultures over thousands of years,” Fitzhugh says. “It’s a very small, fragile thing, but it’s very adaptable. It was one of the most ingenious watercraft ever developed anywhere in the world.”
Popovich, who considers himself a wood specialist, has been building things for the Smithsonian in different jobs for more than 25 years. He still gets a deep satisfaction out of completing projects even after all this time, and couldn’t hide a grin as he moved the kayak around the shop for photographs. “When it’s finished, it will be a beautiful thing,” he says.
June 7, 2013
World Oceans Day often prompts reminders of all the terrible things that have already happened to the ocean and the even scarier prospects for the future. While there’s no doubt that all is not A-OK when it comes to ocean health, it’s worth remembering that when people have come together to make things better, they often succeed. These success stories span the globe and the gamut of marine habitats and organisms.
One of the biggest impacts people have had on Planet Ocean is through fishing and hunting. The Steller’s sea cow was exterminated a mere 27 years after its discovery in the North Pacific. Fortunately, protections have been put in place for many marine organisms, albeit sometimes just in the nick of time. North Atlantic right whale numbers are increasing, and the sea otter brings oohs and aahs from admiring tourists in northern California. Fish numbers have also often increased with protection, either through careful controls on harvesting methods and amounts or through the establishment of marine protected areas.
Sometimes our harvesting has destroyed the very habitat that the creatures we like to eat create. Oyster reefs once dominated shallow waters along much of the east coast of the U.S. But massive dredging efforts left muddy bottoms that new oysters can’t colonize, leading to a collapse of the populations of these magnificent bivalves who not only nourish us, but through their filtering clean the water where they live. In these cases, active restoration rather than simple protection has been required. This is sometimes harder than one might expect, but here progress is also being made.
Hunting and fishing are not the only things we do that can harm marine life. Declining water quality and other forms of pollution, such as the giant dead zone that forms off the mouth of the Mississippi each year, can also be a big problem. Once again, however, restrictions on what can be dumped into our waterways have resulted in dramatic turnarounds. Over a century ago, Monterey Bay was a mess, polluted by the industrial waste from the canneries on its shoreline. But now its ecosystem is restored—sustained and even thriving as a standout example of how public education programs and healthy tourism can have great impact. We still have a long way to go with plastic pollution, but communities around the world have started phasing out the use of plastic bags. China’s five-year anniversary of its ban on plastic bags has reportedly reduced consumption by 67 billion bags.
Ocean warming and ocean acidification loom as larger threats over the long term, and here successes are proving harder to achieve. But one of the important lessons of the last decade is that reducing local stressors can make a big difference, building the resilience of ocean ecosystems and buying us invaluable time as we figure out how to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.
Bottom line? We need to think and act both locally and globally if we want to pass on a healthy ocean to future generations. In an era when catastrophes get much of the coverage, it’s important to remember that we can still make a difference. There are many successes to celebrate. Ocean conservation is working and we can learn from our successes. But there is plenty of work still to do.
May 8, 2013
The National Zoo’s two giant pandas have little interest in each other 11 months of the year. Mei Xiang, 15, and Tian Tian, 16, are solitary creatures, happy to spend most of their days chowing down and napping. But March was mating season. For 30 to 45 days, pandas undergo behavioral and physical changes that prepare them for an annual 24- to 72-hour window in which females ovulate, the only time they can conceive.
Just because they are able to mate, though, doesn’t mean they will. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are what David Wildt, head of the Center for Species Survival at the National Zoo, calls “behaviorally incompetent.”
“Tian Tian tries really hard, and is very diligent in his duties,” he says, “but he’s just not able to pull Mei Xiang into the proper mating position.”
The pair is not alone. Of pandas in the United States today, only two, Gao Gao and Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo, have been able to breed naturally. Captive pairs have succeeded elsewhere in the world as well—especially in China, the bears’ native home, where the captive population is much higher—but mating difficulties are still common. Panda’s total population, captive and wild, is about 2,000, so each failed match is a crucial missed opportunity for repopulation.
The species’ future is brighter than these mating difficulties suggest, though. Wildt is part of an international network of American and Chinese specialists—veterinarians, researchers and zookeepers—who have collaborated for years on improving captive panda breeding practices. In recent years, the team has made huge advances in understanding the bears’ biology and behavior, which has inspired new approaches to care that reduce faulty coupling, or even circumvent it.
Their studies are turning the tide. Today, the bears’ captive population is around 350, almost triple what it was 15 years ago.
When Mei Xiang began to ovulate on the last weekend of March, zookeepers closed the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat to visitors, made sure she and Tian Tian were comfortable, then brought the lustful pair into the same room for the first time since last spring. The two had become rambunctious leading up to the encounter, and spent days staring longingly at one another through the fence that divides their yards. They had hardly touched their bamboo.
Despite the flirtatious fireworks, though—and while it was the seventh year in a row the two had been put together to mate—the two pandas again failed to copulate. As she has in the past, Mei Xiang flopped on her belly like a pancake when she met with Tian Tian—the opposite of good mating posture, which would have her rigid on all fours—and Tian Tian went about his usual routine of stomping around and standing on her, clueless what to do.
After multiple attempts, the keepers ushered the tired pair back to their separate yards.
Panda breeders’ challenge is overcoming unknown variables in the mating process, says Copper Aitken-Palmer, head vet at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “There may be some developmental things that we are doing differently under human care, versus what they’re learning in the wild,” she says. Cubs often stay with their mothers for two or more years in the wild, for instance, so they might learn how to breed by watching or listening. Adults may need to mate with an experienced partner first to learn what to do. It’s hard to know for sure, Aitken-Palmer explains, because wild pandas are incredibly hard to observe in their bamboo-filled habitat in China’s southwestern mountains.
The National Zoo compensates for its lack of other pandas to mimic these conditions by preparing Mei Xiang and Tian Tian year-round for mating, both the act itself and the steps leading up to and following it. Since Mei Xiang arrived, she has been trained to receive injections, get blood drawn, milk and lie peacefully during ultrasounds, all without a fuss. (She even rubs the ultrasound gel over herself for her keepers.) The Zoo is trying to teach her to pancake onto a raised platform instead of the ground to make herself more accessible to Tian Tian, and also gives Tian Tian strengthening exercises so one day he might learn to pull her upright.
In China, zoos and breeding centers with a greater number of pandas use similar techniques to encourage coupling, and have begun to test the theory that pandas learn from observation by having cubs attend breeding sessions. On rare occasions, some Asian breeding centers have gone so far as to show their bears videos of other pandas mating—yep, panda porn. There’s no concrete evidence it works, though.
(Josh Groban has his own panda mating technique, but its success also hasn’t been confirmed.)
More than behavioral changes, the most significant improvements in breeding techniques have come at the chemical level. Researchers have developed increasingly accurate measurements of female pandas’ hormone levels and vaginal cell changes, and now are able to pinpoint the exact ideal time frame for a panda’s egg to be fertilized. This new-found accuracy not only dictates the best window to put two pandas together in the same room, but also dramatically improves the success of the practice that allows pairs who cannot figure out how to mate to have cubs anyways: artificial insemination.
“Because pandas’ reproductive activity is so infrequent, they don’t have many opportunities for sexual experimentation and figuring it out,” Wildt says. A panda in heat in the wild may mate with a number of males all competing for her, but those in America’s zoos are stuck with the one they’ve got, regardless of sexual compatibility. Artificial insemination is key to panda breeding, he explains, because it has allowed scientists to overstep the hurdle of sexual compatibility entirely. The technique, which deposits collected semen into a female while she is anesthetized, was “very rudimentary” in the early 2000s, in his words, but took off about seven years ago when scientists began to develop effective ways to freeze and store semen for multiple years and craft more precise tools, like tiny catheters that sneak through a female panda’s cervix to place sperm directly into her uterus.
So far in America, six panda cubs have been produced by artificial insemination, including two from Mei Xiang. That’s one more than the number of the country’s naturally conceived cubs—and as Wildt points out, those cubs all come from the same super-compatible couple in San Diego. (No exact data is available for China’s natural vs. artificial breeding stats, Wildt says, because its zoos often follow successful natural mating sessions with artificial inseminations the next day to improve the chances of fertilization.)
Artificial insemination is particularly valuable for America’s pandas, along with all others outside of China’s well-populated breeding centers, because it has the potential to increase genetic diversity, which is essential for maintaining the captive population’s health as it expands. Mei Xiang has been artificially inseminated every year she has failed to mate with Tian Tian since 2005. This year, for the first time, she was inseminated with semen from two males, first with a fresh-frozen combination of Tian Tian’s sperm, and 12 hours later with some of Gao Gao’s semen stirred in as well, shipped frozen from San Diego. “Artificial insemination gives us the opportunity to mix things up in the absence of multiple males,” Aitken-Palmer says.
According to Wildt, the National Zoo will continue to focus on artificial insemination for the foreseeable future. But natural breeding is the ultimate goal for the species, once zoos and breeding centers have large enough panda populations to depend on it, he says. The numbers are headed in the right direction; the bears are back to “self-sustaining,” which means no more giant pandas have to be brought into captivity, and scientists will have them under their care for at least the next 100 years. The Chinese are even beginning to reintroduce pandas into the wild (although with some difficulty).
“It’s really a great success story,” says Aitken-Palmer. “There aren’t many endangered animals we’ve been able to do this with.”
Now, everyone is waiting on Mei Xiang to add to the species’ growing numbers. Her first cub, Tai Shan, came in 2005, and the second, born last summer after years of disappointment, died from underdeveloped lungs after just six days. Another successful birth would help to heal the wounds of last year’s tragedy, says Juan Rodriguez, one of the National Zoo’s panda keepers.
It also would give Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s Chinese owners a good reason to keep the pair together at the zoo instead of considering a different match, which has been an ongoing discussion.
Bandie Smith, the Zoo’s giant panda curator, says not to hold your breath for news on Mei Xiang’s pregnancy anytime soon. The staff might not know if Mei Xiang is pregnant until a cub pops out. Females build nests and cradle objects each year whether they are pregnant or not (the latter is called a “pseudo-pregnancy”), and the fetuses are so small that they often escape detection in ultrasounds. Pandas experience a phenomenon called delayed implantation, too, in which a fertilized egg floats around for a number of weeks—usually between 90 and 160 days—before implanting in the female’s uterus and beginning a short 40- to 50-day gestation period.
All this means that no one has a very exact idea of when a new cub would arrive—somewhere around mid-August, Smith says.
“Breeding pandas is a very protracted process, and it’s never a guarantee. That’s the frustrating part,” says Rodriguez. “The cool part is that you’re among people who are trying to keep a critically endangered species on the planet. If we can ensure their continuous path to recovery, then our great grandchildren could actually experience pandas in their natural habitat. You can’t beat that.”