Astonishing Baby Pandas and Births

In celebration of the birth and life of one of the most adorable and endangered species our planet has to offer, here are a series of progressive photos of a Giant Panda — native only to China — from day 1 through to day 120, along with information about panda reproduction that you may find surprising.
The photo above is from the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, China. Those that follow were emailed to me without credit, history or any attached information. After hours of research to find their origin I came up empty, but one might be safe to assume that the photos were taken either at the Chengdu Research Base or the Wolong Panda Reserve where they would be professionally equipped and staffed with qualified handlers to ensure a panda’s survival.
Why this little infant was raised from an incubator is anyone’s guess, but plenty of explanations abound …

If the mother has twins — which happens in at least 40% of captive births — she is able to care for only one of her cubs, and will reject the second.

The mother may have died at the hands of a poacher, although it would be unlikely in this case considering the age of the cub.

The mother may have been ill during birth and unable to care for her young. Baby pandas are born very small, helpless and as fragile as a human baby at birth, requiring the mother’s undivided attention.

Some panda mothers do accidentally kill their cubs since they’re so large and a little clumsy, while others lack the instinct in captivity to care for their infants. As a result, zoos and reserves have intervened to raise them for a time to ensure their safety and guarantee their development.
Ya Ya of China’s Chongqing Zoo shown above accidentally rolled over onto her newborn, killing the cub in September 2006. Ya Ya hadn’t slept for 2 days and fell asleep while it was nursing, China’s media reported. When she rolled onto her cub, she fatally damaged the infant’s heart, liver, and other internal organs. Handlers were alerted to the tragedy when the cub fell motionless from her mother’s nipple. Many zoos state this is not uncommon.

“There’s a level of risk in the early hours and early days after a birth. And with a first-time or inexperienced mother, the risk is much higher.” Said Carmi Penny, curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo.

Females and males are only fertile during a 24 to 72 hour window every 2 to 3 years, so 2 pandas must be brought together at exactly the right time. Sometimes the fertility is only for a 60 minute period of time.

On average, a giant panda may have 2 to 3 cubs in their lifetime. The cub’s growth is slow, not reaching sexual maturity until 5 to 7 years of age. The mating season typically occurs from mid-March to mid-May.

Gestation ranges from 83 to 163 days — 135 days being the average. Baby pandas weigh merely 3.2 to 4.6 ounces (90 to 130 grams). Usually, the panda generally gives birth to 1 or 2 cubs. Since the baby requires the mother’s full attention, she usually abandons one of her cubs if she has twins, which dies soon after birth. Currently, scientists do not know how the female chooses which cub to raise.

Cubs are born pink, furless and blind. They nurse 6 to 14 times a day for up to 30 minutes at a time. The cub’s skin turns gray where its hair will eventually become black 1 to 2 weeks after birth. A slight pink color may appear on the panda’s fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother’s saliva. The color pattern of the cub’s fur is fully developed 1 month after birth. Their fur is very soft and coarsens with age.

The cub begins to crawl at 75 to 90 days. Mothers often play with their cubs by rolling and wrestling with them. The cubs are able to eat small quantities of bamboo after 6 months, though the mother’s milk remains the primary food source for most of the first year. The mother may leave the den to feed for 3 to 4 hours, leaving the panda cub defenseless.

Giant panda cubs weigh about 99 pounds (45 kilos) at one year, and live with their mothers until they are 18 months to 2 years old. The interval between births in the wild is generally 2 years, as mothers will not mate while they have an infant to care for.

Breeders and biologists often experience difficulty inducing captive pandas to mate, which may stem from the captive bears’ lack of experience. Some keepers in China and Thailand have shown their pandas videos of ‘panda porn’ — footage with mating pandas in an attempt to teach them to mate. A number have been successful, even resulting in reproduction. Although it’s unlikely the pandas actually learn mating behaviors from the videos, scientists believe that hearing the associated sounds has a stimulating effect on them.

Panda pornography refers to pornographic movies created to promote sexual arousal in captive Giant Pandas. Under zoo conditions, the bears have generally been unenthusiastic about mating, placing their species in danger of extinction. 31 cubs were born in China over a 10 month period proceeding the experiment. Other methods, including the use of Viagra to stimulate pandas have so far proven unsuccessful.

Wild panda breeding is difficult to study, as the animals are so reclusive. But long-term data on some populations suggest wild pandas have relatively high reproductive rates.
The first panda in Europe to be conceived naturally by parents in captivity was born in Austria on April 27th 2007. Female Yang Yang and male Long Hui produced the cub, which measured 4 inches (10 centimeters) and weighed 3.57 ounces (100 grams) at birth. The 7 year old pair were loaned by China to the zoo in Vienna in 2003.

Handlers said that an ultrasound on August 6th had shown no evidence that Yang Yang — whose name means sunshine — was pregnant. The arrival of the cub was discovered after unusual noises were heard coming from the panda’s enclosure.

Most pandas conceived in captivity are the product of artificial insemination but Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Zoo said it wanted “to let nature run its course.”

The recent success of captive breeding is yet another feather in the cap of giant panda conservation. Reproductive biologists spent years watching pandas with no sex drive just stare at each other across a pen. Or worse, male pandas would attempt to mount a female’s head, says Jo Gayle Howard, a reproductive biologist at the National Zoo in Washington. After a decade of intensive collaboration with the Chinese on reproductive technology, Howard said “It just finally paid off. The Chinese have been role models in breeding pandas. We’ve learned a lot from them and they’ve learned a lot from us.”

Most difficult was pinning down when female pandas ovulate. Howard and her team at the National Zoo watched their female’s flirtatious behavior and used hormones in the urine to pinpoint the best opportunity for artificial insemination. Chinese scientists often rely on male bears to sniff out the fertile window. Once the bears copulate, the team injects a back-up dose of artificial insemination.

To help prevent extinction, humans have had to lend a helping hand often using artificial insemination and hand rearing. Pandas have to be mutually interested if they are to mate without artificial insemination

In 1983, the Madrid zoo saw the birth of Chu Lin, the first Panda cub to be born using artificial insemination in Europe. Chu Lin lived for 13 years.

Human pregnancies can be revealed by ultrasound, the telltale expanded belly, and home-pregnancy tests, but panda pregnancies are highly difficult to detect. None of these work for pandas. They won’t generally sit still for ultrasounds, their babies are born too small — the size of a stick of butter — to create any noticeable belly, and their pregnancy hormones remain a mystery.

Researchers trying to discover a pattern to the hormones typical to a panda’s pregnancy have few examples to draw from with only 239 pandas as of November 7th 2007 that live in zoos around the world, and few born in captivity. The few found patterns indicate that a pregnant panda’s urine hormones track exactly to a non-pregnant panda’s, except for a 4 or 5 day period about 30 days prior to delivery.

The change in hormones is thought to correspond to the implantation of the panda fetus, equally mysterious. Researchers believe this phenomenon — called variable delayed implantation — means that the embryo floats freely in the uterus until conditions for a successful birth are favorable, and the fetus implants in the wall of the uterus late in the 3 to 5 month pregnancy. A human embryo implants within days of fertilization.

Lee Hagey has developed a new method to monitor levels of chemicals in a pandas’ urine with a machine that separates chemicals in the urine according to weight, and gives a computerized profile of the amounts of each chemical in the sample. Researchers are also focusing on a new set of steroid hormones as possible markers of pregnancy. Hagey is hopeful that together, these will prove to be a more reliable technique than prior methods.
One of the busiest centers of panda breeding is the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China, where handlers aided a record number of births last year in a mini baby panda boom.
Eighteen pandas were named at a ceremony in Sichuan province after names for the cubs were chosen from about 30,000 entries submitted by the public after an appeal for ideas.
The cubs will live at the reserve until they’re a year old.

Giant pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity.

China has 239 giant pandas in captivity as of November 2007, 128 of them in Wolong and 67 in Chengdu, with 27 pandas living outside the country. It’s estimated that around 1,590 pandas are living in the wild, but recent research via DNA analysis suggests that up to 3,000 pandas could be roaming the wilderness.

Scientists thought giant pandas live mostly solitary lives mainly coming together to mate, but recent studies paint a different picture, in which small groups of pandas share a large territory and sometimes meet outside the breeding season.

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