It’s Panda-monium at Edinburgh Zoo! Baby Cub Watch is On

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Baby pandas are the epitome of cute – but science has had trouble with the specifics of breeding pandas in the wild. Image by fortherock

How Do Researchers Detect a Pregnancy?

Conceiving, however, is only half the battle. Pregnancies are rife with complications, including pseudo-pregnancies with females producing pregnancy hormones whether or not they are pregnant.

Although pandas are not the only ones with this mechanism (dogs are another example), researchers don’t really know why it happens. Dr Kersey explains that it may serve as an insurance mechanism. As the female only reproduces once a year, generating the same hormonal response as a pregnant female has no added costs.

Unfortunately, an accurate and straightforward pregnancy test for giant pandas has eluded scientists for decades. Currently, there are various assays that are close, but none is 100% definitive. “The difficultly in producing this test again goes back to our rather limited collective knowledge on reproductive mechanisms,” explains Dr Kersey. “What we have to appreciate is that the home pregnancy test for humans so widely available was only produced after decades of research from thousands of studies. So, again we are starting from scratch. A giant panda is not a human.”

Further problems derive from the fact that pregnancies can last anything from three to five months, as the embryo may not implant straightaway. And trying to scan a 230-pound uncooperative and grumpy panda to find a tiny foetus hidden beneath layers of fat is like looking for a needle in a hay stack. Very difficult.

Giant Pandas: Survival of the Species

Despite the difficulties, many people believe these breeding programmes are vital to ensure the survival of the giant panda. Over the last few years, researchers have made tremendous progress in captive breeding for this magnificent species. However, this was only possible after a concerted effort to understand their biology. This is “a common theme in endangered species conservation,” concludes Dr Kersey.

Resources

Kersey, David, et allEndocrine milieu of perioestrus in the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), as determined by non-invasive hormone measures(2010). CISRO Publishing. Accessed September 5, 2013. 

Charlton, Benjamin, et allVocal cues to male androgen levels in giant pandas(2010). Royal Society Publishing. Accessed September 5, 2013. 

Kersey, David, et all. Unique biphasic progestagen profile in parturient and non-parturient giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) as determined by faecal hormone monitoring. (2010). CISRO Publishing. Accessed September 5, 2013.

Owen, Megain, et all. Dynamics of Male–Female Multimodal Signaling Behavior across the Estrous Cycle in Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)(2013). Wiley Online Library. Accessed September 5, 2013. 

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