One of my eighth grade Girls In Science (GIS) participants asked, ” Why are we going to pandas again? We go every year. It’s gonna be boring.” Yes, we do go every year, but each time the GIS have visited a scientist at the Giant Panda Research Station we’ve seen and learned something new. This visit proved to be no exception. Divided into two groups, one GIS group connected with Pamela Crowe, who taught them about ethograms and behavioral research, and the other met up with Jessica Hoffman and Angie Fiore, who walked through a training session with Mei Sheng, then led us on a tour through the entire facility.
Any time the GIS get to participate in research that’s going on, we contribute to the vast collection of data that is accumulated and used by panda caregivers all over the world. Ethograms are lists of behaviors that our panda researchers expect to see. The researchers use those lists and stopwatches to document what the bears are doing every minute for up to two hours at a time. Obviously we didn’t have that kind of time to commit, but the data captured was a valid contribution to the information that has already been collected.
The girls who observed the training session obviously couldn’t do any hands-on work with our little bear boy, Mei Sheng, but they did get to observe several different behaviors and learned why he was trained to do those particular ones. Mei Sheng is a very charming panda, and the girls were completely absorbed in the session.
When the keepers were finished, Mei Sheng headed off to his bedroom and his snacks, and we continued on through the facility for a tour. We got to peek through bedroom doors to see Mei Sheng and his dad, Gao Gao, off exhibit and eating their afternoon meals. We also got a good look at the video monitoring system and learned just how many cameras are scattered throughout the bear areas. Something that no one expected to see was Bai Yun’s birthing den (pictured)””it’s really a big, dark cylindrical space with doors on two sides and a couple of cameras built in. Because the space isn’t being used at the moment, we all got to poke our heads right inside to have a look–wow! Keeper Jessica explained how the small side door is used to remove babies for weighing and check-ups when Bai Yun steps out to eat. It will also be used to swap babies in and out if Bai Yun ever gives birth to twins, ensuring that both babies will receive maternal care.
We were duly impressed by all that we got to see, from that birthing den right down to the bamboo refrigerators””who knew we fed so many different kinds of bamboo to our bears?! As always, a special thanks goes out to Pam, Jessica, and Angie for sharing with us their time and their expertise.
On our way back, that same eighth grader said to me, ” That was soooo cool! How come we never got to see the birthing den before?” I responded, ” Well, you know, it’s all about enrichment here at the Zoo. That was a little enrichment for you””we try to keep changing things up, to keep you on your toes, so things never get boring. Did it work?”
Cindy Spiva-Evans is an educator at the San Diego Zoo.
Girls In Science is a program for Roosevelt Middle School girls which creates science-based experiences with professional women at the San Diego Zoo. The program is funded through the generosity of the Wells Fargo Foundation.
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