Panda cubs at Tokyo zoo get their names,
to debut in January
Giant panda twins born at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in June got their names Friday — Lei Lei for the female cub, and Xiao Xiao for her brother. They were chosen from hundreds of thousands of suggestions sent from fans around Japan.

The twin cubs, which were palm-size pink creatures when born on June 23, have grown and now have their unique black-and-white blocks, with black fur around their eyes, ears and limbs.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced their names during her weekly news conference. She said Xiao Xiao means “the light of dawn turning brighter," and Lei Lei portrays a bud becoming a beautiful flower and developing a bright future.

“Together, Xiao Xiao and Lei Lei can mean bright dawn leading to the future. I think their names have a very bright image,” she said. In a short video that Koike played, the siblings in a baby cot cuddled, crawled slowly and went to sleep. “Adorable,” she said, and played the video twice.

Like elsewhere in the world, pandas are hugely popular in Japan. Before deciding their names, Tokyo officials even set up a name selection committee. Officials from the zoo and the Tokyo government chose the names from more than 190,000 entries sent from around Japan and after consulting with the Giant Panda National Park in China, which owns the pandas.

Both of them weigh about 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) — nearly 50 times their weight at birth — and about 60 centimeters (2 feet) long, according to the zoo. Koike said the panda cubs are still raised inside the zoo but their debut is expected in January when they turn 6 months, along with their mother panda.

Genetic Health of Panda Population Improves in Less-Than Perfect Habitat
What would be the ideal giant panda reserve? A large tract of uninterrupted bamboo forest or a slightly less pristine woodland interspersed with the odd grassland or road? It turns out, the answer might be the second. A first-of-its-kind study published in Conservation Biology last month found that wild giant pandas have the best gene flow in a landscape that is just 80 percent ideal habitat.

"There was kind of a surprising result," study lead author Thomas Connor, who completed his Ph.D. at Michigan State University (MSU) and is now a postdoc at the University of California-Berkeley, told EcoWatch.

Too Much of a Good Thing?
There has long been a debate in the conservation world over whether it is better to protect large, uninterrupted stretches of wilderness or smaller patches of habitat.
To make their contribution to answering this question, Connor and an MSU and China-based research team studied the giant pandas of the Wolong Nature Reserve in China. This reserve is home to around 150 pandas and covers around 2,000 square kilometers (approximately 772 square miles).

"It was a multi-step study starting with measuring habitat, predicting panda habitat on the landscape, and then with that data measuring habitat amount and habitat fragmentation across the landscape and then relating that to genetic connectivity as well as genetic diversity of the pandas in this area," Connor said.

What they found is that the relationship between habitat amount and fragmentation and the genetic health of the population was non-linear. This means that markers of genetic health such as gene flow and inbreeding didn't simply increase with the amount of uninterrupted habitat in a given landscape. Instead, the researchers found an ideal threshold for gene flow of 80 percent habitat to 20 percent non-habitat. For habitat fragmentation, there was also an optimal threshold of slight variation in the amount of habitat present in different patches.
The relationship between inbreeding and habitat amount was also nonlinear. However, inbreeding was still at its lowest when the greatest amount of habitat was present.

The study authors believe this is the first time anyone has demonstrated a non-linear relationship between habitat amount and fragmentation and gene flow in the field. And the results have important implications for conservation best practices.
"We can't just say we need to maximize or minimize habitat or fragmentation in every case. There's likely thresholds at play that we want to shoot for for the most effective conservation," Connor said.

Giant panda's black and white coat works as excellent camouflage
Why are giant pandas black and white? It is a question that has long stumped biologists and casual observers alike. But we may at last have a clear answer. Tim Caro at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues have previously looked at camouflage in other animals to suggest that the giant panda’s distinctive patterning helps it hide from predators – such as big cats. Now the team has strengthened the idea by modelling how pandas appear to these predators.

The group analysed 15 photos of giant pandas taken in forests in south-central China and used a computer model to analyse the images as they would appear to predatory cats and dogs.

“We don’t know what a tiger or a leopard’s eye is really like, but we do know how a [domestic] cat or dog’s eye works and so we can extrapolate from that,” says Caro.

His team found that cats and dogs would both struggle to spot a panda in a forest – particularly if the panda were some distance away. The photos were taken from between 5 and 150 metres from the panda, and included both snowy and sunny environments.

From a predator’s perspective, not only did the panda’s colours match its background, but beyond a distance of 55 metres, the panda began to lose its general outline. “We’ve seen this effect in things like moths but never a mammal,” says Caro.

He says pandas are black and white because their environments are snowy in the winter and hot in the summer. “It’s a sort of compromise pattern,” says Caro. “Some animals change the colour of their coat seasonally – say brown in summer and white in winter – but this animal doesn’t do that.” Caro adds that his team was surprised to find that even the brown mud that often gets rubbed into a panda’s fur helps with camouflage. “When we see pandas in the zoo, they tend to be fairly clean so we don’t think of them as having three different shades,” he says.

“I’m surprised by how well pandas turn out to match the colours of their background,” says Jenny Read at Newcastle University, UK. “Understanding animal camouflage is important because it helps us understand how animals interact with one another normally and also how this might be affected by human activity or interference.”

Pandas are generally safe from predators today, says Caro, but when they had a larger population, they would have faced threats from tigers, leopards and Asiatic black bears.
A Bubble Bath Wrestling Match
October has been a fun month for our 14-month-old giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji, who explores his environment through sensory enrichment! One autumn morning, keepers were cleaning the indoor enclosure that he shares with his mother, Mei Xiang, when they both approached the mesh and “supervised” our work.

Since we were not quite ready to let them back inside, we gave them some bubble bath solution—one of Mei Xiang’s favorite scents. When giant pandas enjoy a particular scent, they rub it all over themselves, a behavior called scent-anointing. It turned into a wrestling match with both pandas covered in the bubble bath, and the fur on their ears became spiky from the solution. It was great to see Xiao Qi Ji enjoy the scent in the same manner as his mother and with his mother!

It’s important that our pandas get some mental exercise every day, too. Puzzle feeders are a great tool for sharpening their problem-solving skills. Recently, Xiao Qi Ji received his very own puzzle feeder—a large purple ball with multiple holes. Since the openings are quite large, we will fill the feeder with hay to make the treats a little tougher to get out. Xiao Qi Ji must spin, shake or roll the feeder around until all of the biscuits and hay have fallen out. It’s a good mental workout since it takes both brain power and energy to move the treats from the puzzle feeder to his belly.

Every day, Xiao Qi Ji becomes more independent and seems to enjoy spending time by himself. While Mei Xiang enjoys her morning breakfast, her son busies himself with his own “projects”—futzing with tree branches, exploring the trees and climbing structure in his outdoor habitat, or scaling the rockwork in his indoor habitat. Occasionally, he is so preoccupied with playing that he chooses not to spend time with his mother until the afternoon!

Although we still see Xiao Qi Ji nurse for comfort from time to time, the majority of his diet is made up of bamboo, fruit and high fiber biscuits. He receives his own diet twice a day; we feed him separately from Mei Xiang to ensure she does not eat his portions. Lately, he has become much more efficient at eating—not to mention protective of his treats. If Mei Xiang dares to come near “his” food, he can be seen and heard giving her a piece of his mind! When Xiao Qi Ji chooses to follow Mei Xiang around, he usually tries to sneak a bite of whatever she’s eating. He is growing nicely. At his last weigh-in, he tipped the scales at 72 pounds. This time last year—when he was just 9 weeks old—he weighed 7.5 pounds!
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Giant Panda Cubs in
Wolong Nature Reserve
Giant panda cub gets new teeth
at 2 months old
Exploring how the Wolong Nature Reserve protects China's wild pandas
Pandas celebrate birthdays
at Shanghai zoo
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