From Conception Through Year 1: Part 1 of 4
When we think of “conceiving” a baby animal, most of us probably think…well, they mate, the egg is fertilized, and a few months later we have a baby. For pandas, it isn’t quite that easy. Early last year we posted an article from about why pandas are challenged at reproducing if you’d like a more in depth explanation. To summarize, most pandas don’t mate well in captivity. In essence, they simply don’t know what to do. To make matters more difficult, female pandas are only able to conceive once per year for approximately two days. That’s only 48 hours A YEAR that a panda can become pregnant. While all attempts are generally made to allow a pair to mate naturally, if nature does NOT take its course, keepers rely on artificial insemination to “help” a panda conceive. But, as with natural mating, AI is not a guaranteed pregnancy.
So, now we just need to determine whether our female panda is pregnant. Easy right? Not quite. After natural mating or artificial insemination, female pandas can undergo what is called a pseudo-pregnancy. During a pseudo-pregnancy, their bodies — including hormonal levels — show all the signs of pregnancy even though they are not actually pregnant.
Signs of Pregnancy (and Pseudo-Pregnancy)
Eating less: When giant pandas are within a month or two of giving birth, their appetites decrease. Since adult pandas consume nearly 40 pounds of bamboo a day (and eat 14 hours of every day), it is pretty obvious when there is a decrease.
Nesting: As a pregnant giant panda gets closer to her due date she will begin shredding bamboo into little pieces to make a nest. Caretakers will also provide other nesting materials to facilitate the behavior.
Hormone Levels: A pregnant (and pseudo-pregnant) panda’s progesterone levels rise during pregnancy.
Lethargy: Another sign of panda pregnancy is increased lethargy and lots of sleeping.
Even if a panda displays all of the behaviors listed above – she still may be “faking” her pregnancy. The only 100% sure test is a positive ultrasound. BUT, of course, with a panda it still isn’t that easy. Since a panda fetus is so very small and doesn’t begin to develop fully until the last couple weeks of pregnancy, oftentimes it can be missed during an ultrasound under layers of fat, full bladders, and stomachs full of bamboo. Many times the most obvious sign that a panda is actually pregnant is (you guessed it) the birth of a cub!