Learning From Panda Play Mei Xiang and Tian Tian

National Zoo Researcher David Powel
National Zoo Researcher David Powel

Today, the large clear-blue plastic water bottle filled with biscuits was only slightly interesting to Tian Tian. He sniffed at it halfheartedly then batted it down the embankment of his panda habitat. What he really wanted was for Mei Xiang to come down from her perch in the curve of her favorite tree. From the looks of things Mei Xiang had no intentions of coming down.

"Tian Tian has been anxious for the last couple of weeks," explains David Powell, postdoctoral scientist for giant panda behavior at the National Zoo. "He's been having these hormone surges. He gets anxious when he calls for Mei Xiang and she doesn't come. Nothing seems to keep him busy."


While the zoo is excited about Tian Tian going through his first rut or breeding cycle, it means that panda-enrichment activities today won't be very successful. Mei Xiang will stay in her tree for the rest of the day to avoid Tian Tian's aggressive advances and Tian Tian, frustrated, will pace around the exhibit.

Panda enrichment, lead by Powell and the panda keepers, is designed to give the pandas something challenging to do with their time and illicit behavior they might exhibit in the wild. The pandas are presented with a variety of objects, from burlap sacks and fruitsicles to wading pools and water bottles, with most containing palatable panda treats. How Mei Xiang and Tian Tian approach some of these objects can also tell the zoo something about their personalities. Mei Xiang tends to approach new objects cautiously and spends more time with them, while Tian Tian goes straight for the object, working immediately to devour any associated treats.

Providing panda enrichment is just one of the many ways Powell can study and observe panda behavior. Several studies have been done so far, looking at how the pandas handled the stress of traveling from China to the United States; how they behaved over the course of 24 hours to determine their sleeping arrangements, together or separate; and finally how the nighttime behavior of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian compared to the behavior of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.

Currently the zoo is collecting data on how the pandas use the cooling grottoes, caves and other exhibit furnishings. The data will help design a new panda habitat for the pair in a few years.

"It's an exciting opportunity for us because it's pretty rare in zoos to be able to design and build an exhibit for the actual two animals that are going to live in it," Powell says.

The state-of-the-art camera system at the zoo is certainly an asset in collecting data on the pandas. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian may be the most closely watched pandas in the world, with 20 cameras trained on them 24 hours a day. Motion sensors strategically placed throughout the panda house, inside and out, can detect their every move. Microphones pick up every bleat or chirp.

Currently, volunteers watch the pandas twice a day for two hours, recording their behaviors each minute. Jim Beard, a volunteer who received three hours of classroom training and two hours of camera training, says watching these pandas can be a challenge at times, especially during their play bouts.

"You look down for a second and they're gone," he says.

The ultimate goal of all this super surveillance is to determine how these endangered creatures can move from captivity back to the wild. The National Zoo will share its findings with the zoos in Atlanta and San Diego as well as with Chinese panda researchers.

Says Powell, "We collect and share information with other zoos because we need to get more of a sample size than just our two pandas. We need to build a larger picture of what effective panda biology is all about ... We are trying to come up with a good husbandry protocol for pandas. And so far in the United States, we only have experience with two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, so that's why it's really exciting right now that we have seven pandas right now in the United States. We can begin to build a more complete picture about the best care for pandas in captivity."