Panda: the first stages of life, from gestation to independence

Juan Juan, a female panda from the Beauval Zoo, gave birth to twin girls on the night of August 1-2, 2021. One weighs 149 grams and the other 128 grams. Question asked Science and the future on the occasion of the birth of their brother Yuan Meng in 2017, Dr. Antoine Leclerc, veterinarian at the zoo, explained the key growth stages of these animals.

Pregnancy period, which varies depending on the woman

First of all, it must be clarified that the weight of a young panda at birth depends, in particular, on its mother. “The peculiarity of pregnancy in this species compared to humans is that it has a different duration depending on the female: this is embryonic diapause.explains Dr. Leclerc. After fertilization is completed, embryonic development stops, allowing the expectant mother to accumulate fat reserves. It then resumes for a real pregnancy, which lasts 4 to 6 weeks. Again, the duration varies from woman to woman.“. And the longer it is, the more time the animal has to gain weight.

Ultrasound of Juan Juan, female pandas at Beauval Zoo, 2017 © Zoo Beauval

“Panda’s first problem is the cold”

However, young pandas are still not the big guys. “A very young panda is extremely fragile. His first problem is the cold, because he cannot regulate his internal temperature. In nature, a mother curls up on her child to keep him warm.“, – explains the specialist. In addition to the inability to keep warm, in particular due to lack of hair, the newborn depends on the mother also because he is completely blind: his eyes are closed and gradually open at the end of 1 month or even 6 weeks, and they do not make sure they do it at the same time.For example, in Yuan Meng.right eye opened 5 days after the other“, – recalls the veterinarian. – At birth, the outer ear is not yet formed. They appear on the reddish skin of the red panda. Moreover, it is during the first month of her life that the famous black and white bear hair becomes visible. ● Black spots stain, in particular, the contours eyes and ears.

One of the baby pandas delivered by Juan Juan in August 2021 receives his first bottle. Photo: GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

An organism that is not suitable for eating bamboo

If the young pandas at Beauval Zoo were eligible for extra bottles, only their mother’s milk would allow them to grow in the wild. It is not a question that a panda cub will start swallowing bamboo from the first days. This would also be impossible: teeth appear only after 2 months. And only at 6 months the animal begins to be interested in bamboo, first playing with it, then eating it.

Gradually, plants become her main food … although the panda’s digestive tract is not adapted. “There are no physiological changes as such that would cause a panda to consume it. On the contrary: the body must adapt to this new diet, because we must not forget that the panda has a carnivorous digestive tract and therefore has a very low digestion efficiency in relation to plants.“, explains Dr. Antoine Leclerc. In nature, these ursids develop in a bamboo-rich environment to which they have somehow adapted: the low yield of these plants is compensated by the time that pandas spend – almost 14 hours a day! – on consumption and the amount of ingested .

Yuan Meng, born in 2017, 4 months © Zoo Beauval

A panda cub becomes truly independent only at the age of one.

In addition to badly shaped ears and closed eyes, a panda cub is also dependent on its mother because it cannot move. From 2 months the animal barely has time to crawl. He starts running only after 2 months. “It is the development of muscle mass, especially in the limbs, that allows the young panda to improve its movement.says the veterinarian.This allows him to explore his surroundings, and the interaction with his mother changes, especially with the advent of play phases.“.

The young panda only becomes truly autonomous at the age of one year, although its growth is not yet complete. This goes on for another year or two. Someone who weighed only one hundred grams at birth will weigh over 100 kilograms. As Dr. Leclerc points out, the panda’s growth is not the fastest of any known mammal species. But it’s no less impressive.

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