Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is proud to announce the birth of an Indian rhinoceros calf. Born on Friday, August 30 (my second week working at the zoo), this little guy is the first rhinoceros born in the zoo’s 120-year history.
This calf is 1 of 82 Indian rhino living in the United States making him an important addition to the only 3,500-3,600 left in the world. The birth of this rhino gives insight into rhino breeding and rhino conservation.
A white lion cub, a very rare color morph, has been causing quite a stir amongst visitors a Kruger National Park in the Republic of South Africa (mostly because he's so darn cute). This little rarity is a member of the Satara Pride and is one of only 13 wild white lions. White lions are so rare that none were seen in the wild from the early 1990's until 2006. And since 2006, only 16 white lions have been born and in only 5 lion prides, all in the Kruger/Timbavati region.
Why are they so rare?
White lions are a result of leucism, or lack of pigment which results in light coat and eyes. In lions, leucism is caused by getting a copy of a gene which has a recessive mutation from both mom and dad. For two tawny lions (the typical brown/tan color) to have a white lion cub, both lions would have to be carriers of the recessive allele, meaning they have the recessive copy but they display the dominant one.
It is quite possible that the statistics are way more complicated and that there may even be more than one way to be 'white.' It has been speculated that light coat in white lions with yellow eyes may we caused by a different gene than in white lions with blue eyes (the TYR gene versus a gene similar to what creates white cats and white tigers). Genomic analysis of big cats is just beginning but don't you worry, we're getting to the bottom of it!
This story has been floating around the interwebs for the past week or two and I understand why it keeps being re-posted on social media.... its seemingly hilarious!
Ai Hin, a 6 year old panda at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center, the same place some of our San Diego pandas now call home, is said to have faked a pregnancy to get special treatment, including more food, air conditioning and increased attention. Chengdu reported Ai Hin was showing signs of pregnancy in the form of reduced appetite, less mobility and a surge of progestational hormone. But, it could be possible she was pregnant but reabsorbed the fetus. Surges in hormones are hard to fake and it is fairly common for pandas to lose a pregnancy, reabsorbing the fetus so it appears as if there was no pregnancy at all. Reabsorption could happen because there is a fetal defect or death, the mother has a disease which affects her ability to properly care of the fetus, there is a hormonal disruption, or environmental conditions are not conducive to caring for the baby. At the San Diego Zoo, they have seen this phenomenon with the use of thermal imaging and ultra sound. Bai Yun was suspected to be carrying twins on more than one occasion but has only ever given birth to one cub. This kind of fetal reabsorption is called "prenatal litter pruning". The mechanism isn't exactly known but could be an adaptive result of pandas not being able to care for more than one cub in natural, wild conditions.
Who knows. Maybe Panda McLiar Pants wasn't lying after all but her body decided this just wasn't the time. She's only 6 and has never been a mother. Maybe she just wasn't ready yet!!
Su Lin, third cub to Bai Yun and second of the Bai & Gao Gao super team, has given birth to twins! This boy and girl pair are her second and third contributions to the panda gene pool.
Su Lin was one of the pandas I was trained on. From 2007 to 2010 I watched her grow from a newly weaned cub to a full grown, independent panda before being sent to China. All captive pandas are owned by China, on loan as part of a research agreement. Part of the agreement requires all pandas born to loaned research pandas to be returned to China when they turn 3. Su Lin's 3rd birthday, however, was only a matter of months after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which leveled much of the Wolong National Nature Reserve and the Panda Research Center where she was supposed to be sent. So, Su Lin stayed with us at the San Diego Zoo until she was 5 and traveled to China along side her sister Zhen Zhen shortly after her 3rd birthday.
Turns out twins might run in the family. This was actually Su Lin's second set of twins. Her first had one healthy cub and a still born. Her older half-sister, Hua Mei, has given birth to three sets of twins and Bai Yun, although none came to term, has been suspected to have been developing twins when vets did ultrasounds during pregnancy. In the wild, having twins isn't advantageous. The amount of energy it takes to raise two cubs far exceeds what mom is capable of providing so the panda mother is forced to pick the stronger cub to raise. Lucky for these ladies, they are part of breeding facilities equipped with all the "energy" needed to provide for both cubs.
It is so wonderful to see all the success of the San Diego Zoo's Panda Research Facility's breeding program. Not only have six cubs been born in the program but they have given birth to 14 cubs of their own! So many sets of twins really help them up their numbers.
Do you know about your recent genealogical history and want to find out more? Oxford University recently released an interactive map illustrating the genetic histories of 95 different populations across the world. Aside from being of ample means for procrastination, the map shows the genetic impacts of European colonialism, slave trade and mixing of races along trade routes between the East and West.
An incident at the Copenhagen Zoo has recently made international news. Last week, a healthy, 2-year-old, male giraffe named Marius was shot and then skinned and fed to lions before the public. The decision to shoot the giraffe was not made lightly. In an effort to prevent inbreeding of the captive giraffe population, the zoo was advised by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria to get rid of the animal. The Copenhagen Zoo used the sad circumstances as a learning opportunity, allowing the public to watch the process of preparing a feed animal to use as enrichment.
Again, animal rights activists are taking the situation way too far. The Copenhagen Zoo and its staff have been receiving threats to their life and livelihood, including threatens to burn the zoo down! How exactly will burning down the entire institution help anything? Isn't that making the problem worse? Isn't that threatening MANY of the individual animals they claim to want to 'protect'? Logic apparently is not part of their mantra to save the animals. The first article I read was from what I can only assume is an extremist website for activists. They ended the article proclaiming “this practice of ‘keeping the population genetically sound’ sure doesn't seem like a kindness to us – either for Marius or for the other giraffes.” And they are right. It is not a kindness to you personally or a kindness to the poor giraffe that had to be shot, but it IS a kindness to ALL of the giraffe – and zoo visitor – relatives and future generations. That giraffe would have had a poor quality of life if they had kept him and given him contraceptives, which have detrimental side effects. The zoo also now has a spot available to bring in another giraffe with new genes to be introduced into the population, which is better for the giraffe population as a whole.
After an auspicious start on Sunday, which began with an early breeding between giant pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao, San Diego Zoo staff had planned to give our pandas a break of several hours to rest. After the high level of physical exertion associated with breeding attempts, rest periods help recharge the bears’ batteries. The pandas grab a quick snack and a catnap and wake up feeling refreshed.
Somewhat unusually, Gao Gao maintained a very high level of motivation after that first breeding, refusing to rest. He motored about his exhibit, bleating and checking the howdy gate. He grabbed an occasional drink or bite to eat but kept his focus on his mate. Bai Yun, for her part, kept close to that gate, rear-presenting and making it clear she would be happy to have Gao Gao with her again. In order to take advantage of their obviously high level of arousal, we opted to skip the break period and allow them access to one another sooner rather than later. It paid off. At 10:29 a.m., a second mating was achieved.
Staff was elated. Both bears were doing well, we had two matings under our belt, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Despite the crazy weather (it was hailing on us at one point as we watched the bears wrestling in the drizzle), our charges seemed focused, strong, and willing. Surely now that they had managed to copulate twice, they would want to take a break, right?
Wrong. Maybe Gao Gao worried that Bai Yun might have weaker motivation the next day. Or maybe he was aware of his own tendency to be a little slower the day after breeding, feeling the effects of muscle fatigue and soreness. Or maybe he just likes his girlfriends covered in mud. For whatever reason, our boy just would not settle down! He continued to pace and bleat and paw at the gate when she was near. Bai Yun continued to bait him at the howdy gate.
It was decided that if the bears were up for it, we should let them have another shot. Again the gate was opened. For some time, the two worked the mating dance without success. The rain poured down some more, and the wind blew dried bamboo stems down from the stands surrounding the exhibits. And still they worked at it. Ultimately, they did not succeed, so we separated them again to reset the stage.
Almost comically, the bears again refused to leave each other alone. Really, Gao Gao? How can you be so undeterred by the mud and wind and rain? We are soaked through and exhausted just watching you. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you are a senior bear? But I digress.
After much debate, we opted to go with Gao Gao. Up went the howdy gate, down came the rain. They interacted for another half hour or so, but again no mating was realized. Surely, they must be done for the day, we thought. They had to be tuckered out by now. But…well, I think you can guess where this is going!
His motivation still urgent, Gao Gao was letting us know he was still very interested in Bai Yun. Some of Bai Yun’s sexual behaviors were still building in intensity, which was encouraging. However, as she tired, Bai Yun had seemed more and more slow about adopting a posture of lordosis, in which she lowers her shoulders to the ground. Let’s face it: Gao Gao, for all his vigor, isn’t a very big boy. If our female doesn’t get low to the ground, all the vigor in the world just isn’t going to help.
Maybe this was a factor of her age (“Oh, my aching back”), or perhaps the weather conditions (“It’s muddy and wet down there”). For whatever reason, Bai Yun was not as cooperative as Gao Gao would have liked, and this was a contributing factor to their lack of success midday.
Persistence pays off, however. The fifth time(!) we paired our bears, Gao Gao managed to coax Bai Yun into the proper position. He finally accomplished what he had been working so hard to achieve for the last few hours. A third copulation was realized at 1:28 p.m.
Sunday afternoon, we sealed the howdy gate between the bears and left them with a heavy feed. Our hope was that they would fill their bellies and rest. Ideally, we would like to see one more mating out of this pair, not because three isn’t a good number (it is!), but because we are interested in seeing if we could spread out the timing of their breedings a bit to ensure we catch that egg when it is released. The precise timing of ovulation in the breeding cycle is still a bit of an enigma to us, and we would like to have a wide breeding window to maximize the likelihood of fertilization. So we decided to come in again on Monday and try again.
Did Bai Yun remember to get her shoulders down? Did Gao Gao wake up too tired to try again? Did the hail return to spice things up? What happened on Monday? You’ll have to wait until my next installment to fill in those blanks. Right now, I’m going to crawl under a (dry) warm blanket and catch up on some rest myself.
(Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read this article and more about the San Diego Zoo pandas at The Giant Panda Blogs.)
I am a biologist and my life is crap!