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Researchers study pandas for conservation clues
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The Memphis Zoo's newest residents, giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le, could provide valuable clues about the preservation of their critically endangered species.
Scott Willard, assistant professor at Mississippi State University and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station animal and dairy scientist, and his team are conducting reproductive research on Ya Ya, the 2-year-old female on loan from China's Beijing Zoo, and Le Le, the 4-year-old male on loan from the Shanghai Zoo.
"Studying the reproductive status of pandas is essential in helping this endangered animal breed. Female pandas are only able to get pregnant three or four days out of the year, which is a very small window for reproductive success," Willard said.
Willard and Brian Rude, also an assistant professor at MSU and MAFES animal and dairy scientist, used their expertise in livestock reproduction and nutrition to create a panda research proposal, which was accepted and funded by the Memphis Zoo and implemented when the pandas arrived from China in early April.
Willard monitors the many hormones present in the pandas' urine and fecal samples, analyzing them for influence by reproductive behavior, time of year and environmental factors. This non-invasive approach will not require handling the animals to obtain blood samples, and will be tied to Rude's nutrition studies.
"It is everyone's hope that Ya Ya and Le Le will mate, and hopefully our research efforts will aid in that process," Willard said. "Examining the pandas' hormones may help us understand the prime conditions for reproduction, enabling us to make reproductive management plans for Ya Ya and Le Le, as well as pandas in other zoos or conservation facilities."
Meghan Carr, a research biologist at the Memphis Zoo said the importance of researching and studying giant pandas is to better understand why pandas are endangered, and to see what can be done to preserve their species and habitat.
"With only about 1,000 pandas living in the wild, it is extremely important that we examine their habitat, behavior, reproduction and nutrition in order to save future generations," Carr said.
Only about 150 pandas live in zoos or breeding centers around the world, and the establishment of breeding programs for pandas has long been a challenge for zookeepers, veterinarians and researchers. Chinese facilities in Beijing, Shanghai and Chungqing have had the most success with 34 surviving cubs, but few cubs have been born or survived outside of China.
Nutritional research conducted by Rude will indicate measures researchers can take to help pandas in the wild survive and reproduce more successfully.
"This species is quite different than the animals traditionally studied in this area of the country, but we can draw from our research and experience to study the nutritional habits and preferences of the pandas, hopefully opening doors to help protect and preserve them," Rude said. "We get to use local tools and research to study concerns with a global impact."
Rude will examine three major components of panda nutrition: nutrient requirements, how bamboo selection meets these requirements, and remotely monitoring panda eating habits in the wild through fecal nutrient profiling.
Pandas consume a tremendous amount of bamboo, each eating about 15,000 pounds per year. Rude said the Memphis Zoo allots about 70 pounds of bamboo per day for each panda. The pandas also receive a daily supplemental biscuit fortified with vitamins and nutrients.
Ya Ya and Le Le will eat bamboo from various Southeastern locations, including a bamboo facility in Coffeeville, Miss., and another growing facility outside Memphis.
Growers are producing seven species for the pandas to consume, and each type will be evaluated individually for nutrient quality. Rude will also study which types of bamboo Ya Ya and Le Le prefer under different circumstances.
Coordinating reproductive and nutritional research may yield new techniques for monitoring both areas simultaneously. Researchers could use this information to monitor the health and demographics of wild panda populations, answering questions like how many males and females are present in a population, or if any females are pregnant.
Willard and Rude have made a three-year research commitment with their current research plan, but they hope these efforts will continue throughout the pandas' 10-year stay in Memphis.
"Conservation efforts are long-term, so we hope to go down new paths and use new findings to assist with panda preservation," Rude said.