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Monday, December 6, 2010

Pandas: possibly the most complex breeding system ever - tricking moms into caring for twins kickstarts reintro program

Click on the BBC link or the to see some good footage from the program "Panda Makers"

From the
Giant panda breeding breakthrough in China
A critical breakthrough has been made in efforts to save the giant panda, one that could kick-start attempts to reintroduce the animals to the wild.

Conservationists say they have perfected the difficult task of reproducing pandas, having reached their target of successfully raising 300 of the bears in captivity. The breakthrough, mainly by scientists at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre, China, should lead to the first panda being reintroduced into the wild within 15 years. The revelation comes after documentary makers were given unprecedented access to the research centre to film captive breeding activity over two years.

Just a few thousand wild pandas survive at best, and the species is classified as being Endangered. In a bid to protect the animal, scientists have attempted to breed captive pandas since the first such cub was born in 1963. But many obstacles stood in the way of achieving a stable captive panda population.

The first was the very short window of opportunity provided in the panda's natural reproductive cycle. Female pandas are only on heat for 72 hours a year, and can only actually become pregnant during a 12 to 24 hour window during this time. In order to correctly interpret the bears' breeding potential, caring for captive female pandas required close observation including daily urine samples to monitor hormone levels. Understanding the giant panda's natural patterns of reproduction was only the start of the challenge.

'Turned off'
Despite conservationists' best efforts to encourage mating, pandas were seemingly "turned off" by captivity. In Chengdu, the world's most successful panda breeding centre, researchers attempted to entice male pandas with the scent of suitable females on bamboo poles, mimicking wild scent-marking behaviour. Rare interactions between aroused pairs often ended in disappointment, however.

Male pandas have proportionately short penises meaning pairs must adopt a very exact position in order to mate. During their observations, researchers found that pandas demonstrated poor knowledge of this position. Researchers then employed methods ranging from sex education videos to viagra in order to stimulate natural behaviour. Most techniques failed, and many encounters between pandas turned aggressive and violent.

Scientists therefore had to rely upon artificial insemination, but their efforts were again subject to the pandas' peculiar reproductive cycle. Panda pregnancies can last anything from 11 weeks to 11 months and can remain undetected until shortly before birth. So researchers had to pay close attention to pandas following insemination procedures, ready to perform a crucial intervention whenever cubs were born.

Crucial intervention
The boon in panda numbers at the Chengdu centre has largely been attributed to the innovative "twin swapping" technique. More than half of pandas give birth to two cubs at a time but only care for one. It is assumed that as pandas cannot store fat, they lack the milk or energy to care for more than one cub at a time. Whenever a cub was abandoned after birth, keepers at the Chengdu centre swiftly moved it to an incubator. Panda mothers were tricked into caring for twins as staff stealthily rotated them between their mother and the incubators.

The survival rate of cubs rose to 98% through this combination of maternal care and artificial support. By the end of last year, the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre alone had raised 168 cubs since its inception in 1987.

Hopes of reintroduction
Conservationists now believe captive numbers are strong enough to seriously consider wild reintroduction programmes. Using the profits made from loaning their pandas to zoos worldwide, pioneers have purchased precious panda habitat in the Sichuan mountains, southwestern China. With the goal of 300 captive pandas achieved, construction has started on the country's first dedicated panda reintroduction facility.

Panda Makers is broadcast on BBC TWO at 2000 GMT, Tuesday December 7th.

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