More baby bears for Berlin?
Since their arrival during the panda-crazed summer of 2017, Berlin’s giant pandas Meng Meng (5) and Jiao Qing (8) have been clear favourites with visitors at Zoo Berlin. The city just can’t get enough of these furry black-and-white bears with their cute, round faces and fluffy ears. And soon, the adorable duo could be welcoming their own bundle of joy.
While they may look friendly and cuddly, giant pandas are actually pretty unsociable most of the year and live in strict solitude. That is why Zoo Berlin’s two pandas occupy separate habitats in the Panda Garden. Male and female pandas only come together during mating season in the spring – and that is a maximum of 72 hours, the only time in the entire year when the females are fertile. “For several days now, our two pandas have been expressing a clear interest in one another,” announced Zoo and Tierpark Director Dr Andreas Knieriem. “Usually they are indifferent to each other’s presence. But recently, Meng Meng has been emitting a high-pitched squeaking noise that has successfully attracted Jiao Qing’s attention. Her hormone levels also confirm that she is in her three-day fertile period. At 8 a.m. on 5 April, we let the two bears meet in the flesh for the very first time.”
Extensive preparations for potential panda copulation began several weeks ago at the Panda Garden. Department head Norbert Zahmel has flown to China twice to obtain valuable knowledge about giant panda breeding behaviour from the Chinese experts. On one occasion he was accompanied by head veterinarian Dr Andreas Ochs and panda keeper Corvin Schmohl. “Female pandas are usually silent, so Meng Meng’s noises and her altered hormone levels are clear indicators that she is ready to mate,” explains Zahmel. In the past few days, Zoo Berlin has been working closely with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) to analyse urine samples from Meng Meng. The researchers are particularly interested in her progesterone and oestrogen levels, which have changed significantly. Both pandas have also been given the opportunity to get to know one another’s habitats and get used to each other’s smell. They were also able to peer at one another through the windows and glass sliding doors. What’s more, around a week ago two Chinese panda breeding experts arrived in Berlin to lend the team their support.
On the morning of 5 April, the sliding doors between the two habitats were opened and the two pandas were finally allowed to meet. This was their very first encounter, as last year Meng Meng was still too young to get pregnant. To allow the pandas to get to know each other in peace, their date took place out of the public eye. The pandas seemed to get along very well, but despite several attempts they have not yet mated. That could change, as Jiao Qing has got over his initial shyness and Meng Meng has been sending very clear signals.
Although natural conception is usually the most effective reproduction method among pandas, global panda research has experienced a good degree of success with artificial insemination. In preparation for this eventuality, the Panda Garden’s animal clinic has been fitted with the necessary equipment. However, for the time being, the experts continue to hope that Meng Meng will be able to fall pregnant naturally. It is not unusual for inexperienced panda couples to require a little more time. It is also a sign of great trust that the Chinese experts are allowing Zoo Berlin to attempt natural conception, as this is not common outside China. At the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu – the original home of the two Berlin pandas – there have been around 60 artificial inseminations and only three natural conceptions.
If all goes well, there could be a newborn at Berlin’s Panda Garden in the next three to six months. “As with polar bears, a fertilised egg cell lies dormant for an indeterminate length of time before continuing to develop into a foetus,” explains Zoological Director Dr Ragnar Kühne. “The foetus then develops over a period of 45 to 60 days.” The average total gestation period for a giant panda is 155 days, and usually a single cub or twins are born. Zoo Berlin therefore has good reason to hope for at least one panda baby this July or August. However, it will be impossible to know for sure whether or not Meng Meng is actually pregnant until four weeks before the birth at the earliest.
Because this is such a sensitive time, Zoo Berlin’s giant pandas Meng Meng and Jiao Qing may only be on view to the public for limited periods over the next few days.