Baby panda celebrity, Bei Bei, preparing for his first public appearance

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Baby giant panda is the picture of cute.

WASHINGTON — If the youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is stressed out about appearing in front of crowds for the first time, he isn’t showing it. Named by US First Lady Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan during a state visit in September, Bei Bei now weighs 17.5 pounds (eight kilograms). Instead, under bright television lights with cameras clicking, he quickly fell asleep on an examination table, leaving a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth. Bei Bei, the newest addition to the giant panda family at Washington, DC’s National Zoo, greets an indulgent press corps on December 16, 2015, as the zoo’s panda house prepares to reopen to the public on January 16 ©Saul Loeb (AFP) Admission to the zoo is free, but dues-paying members will get exclusive access to Bei Bei in early January before the Panda House reopens to the general public.

Female giant pandas are fertile for fewer than three days a year — a pretty narrow time window for, ahem, activities, especially when you consider that many captive pandas simply don’t know how to do it. The panda’s birth was the result of artificial insemination — a delicate affair because females are fertile only once a year, and for no more than two days, said Pierre Comizzoli, the veterinarian in charge.

Bei Bei is in perfect health, and should follow in the footsteps of his older sister, Bao Bao, who became the darling of the zoo after her birth in 2013, caretakers said. Meanwhile, panda matchmakers — this is a real job — scour a database of all the world’s captive pandas to find the most genetically “suitable” pairings.

But in their eagerness to play yenta, zoos may be missing out on one crucial factor, scientists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research say: When bears are given the opportunity to chose their own mates, researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications, they were far more likely to copulate and produce a cub. Throughout his nearly 30-minute appearance before reporters and photographers, keepers and veterinarians stroked Bei Bei’s thick, bristly fur, and he protested only when they tried to open his mouth to count his teeth. Because his ability to reproduce is critically important to the survival of his species, Bei Bei will have to interact with humans frequently. “He’s in for a life that’s very hands-on, especially when he goes back to China,” said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences. “Our goal is to make him very comfortable in this kind of situation.” “We have such an incredible opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered species as they grow and develop,” Thompson said. “Every day is a treasure.” All in all, there’s a lot of bleating, chirping, rolling around and splashing of water, as well as some more R-rated behaviours that may be best left to the imagination. During the females’ short fertility period, the animals were paired up according to genetic recommendations from the panda species survival plan (these plans help direct captive animal breeding to preserve genetic diversity and a healthy population as a safeguard against extinction in the wild).

Male bears were introduced to females’ pens for anywhere from three to 75 minutes, then moved on to the next one whether or not they made it all the way, so to speak. And after the nightmare speed dating session was over, every female was artificially inseminated as a fail-safe — the researchers would sort out the mess of paternity questions later using DNA tests. Fewer than 2,000 of the black and white bears exist outside of conservation centers and zoos, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but they’re needed for their role in their ecosystem, mostly spreading seeds and boosting vegetation growth. And, conservation scientists argue, pandas belong in the wild (for one thing, wild pandas are a lot better at procreating than their captive counterparts).

But life is risky for a captive panda brought back into the wilderness — last year, the only panda successfully released by China fell ill and died after just a month on her own. In order to keep up the reintroduction program, and keep the population of captive pandas large and diverse, zookeepers need to make sure that pandas reproduce as often and as successfully as possible. “The payoff will be higher reproductive rates and more baby pandas,” he told the New Scientist. “When a zoo is struggling to get its pandas to breed, it might be possible to switch out one of the pairs to see if a behaviourally compatible pair can be found.”

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