A few weeks ago, the San Diego Zoo’s Conservation Education team kicked off their annual, week-long Wild CSI Summer Camp for San Diego middle school students. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Panda Lab for Students, I have been working with the conservation education group to help create a fun and exciting giant panda module that will teach the kids about conservation science and about the multidisciplinary approach we use to conduct our panda research here at the San Diego Zoo. Here’s what we did:
On day one of the camp, the group, consisting of 22 students, began with a tour of our state-of-the-art Beckman Center for Conservation Research, which included an overview of the various types of research we are currently conducting here at the Wild Animal Park, the Zoo and in field projects all over the world. Once back in the Conservation Education Laboratory, housed in the Beckman Center, the kids heard a brief lecture about giant pandas. They learned about the pandas’ current conservation status, the threats to their survival, and the research the Zoo is conducting to better understand this elusive species. Next they spent some time learning about operant conditioning, a process of behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive reinforcement.
At the San Diego Zoo, our panda keepers use operant conditioning to train the pandas to display a wide range of natural (no juggling pandas here) behaviors when requested. Some examples include training the panda to open its mouth on command so that the veterinarians can take a look at the teeth, or training the panda to lie down and remain still so veterinarians can conduct an ultrasound. Both of these types of procedures would typically require that the animal be medically sedated; however, through the use of operant conditioning training, it is no longer necessary to subject the animal to the inherent risks of anesthesia. The veterinarians can gather valuable information about the pandas’ dental health or reproductive condition in a safe, stress-free manner. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a clicker and some apple slices (oh, and a very talented keeper!).
The students in our summer camp got to participate in their own operant conditioning activity. They paired up in teams of two and, using a clicker and some candy as the reward, tried their hand at modifying their partner’s behavior. It was a fun, hands-on way for the kids to learn about behavior training and to understand the importance and effective role that it plays in a conservation-breeding program such as ours.Tuesday
On day two of our Wild CSI Summer Camp, the students learned about bioacoustics, the cross-disciplinary science that combines biology and acoustics. The Giant Panda Research Unit is currently conducting hearing studies with our giant pandas that utilize bioacoustics analysis to help better understand the pandas’ hearing sensitivities. (Read about it in the blog Su Lin: Hitting the High Notes). This is very important because vocalizations play such a vital role during panda breeding season. They live in a very dense forest habitat, and it’s imperative that they communicate in order to find one another during their short breeding season. The students got to listen to some recordings of giant panda vocalizations collected both here at the Zoo and in China and then had fun quizzing each other on their acoustic capabilities.
To test their own bioacoustics skills, the students headed out to the Wild Animal Park with their recording equipment to collect different animal sounds throughout the Park. As you can imagine, there were all kinds of amazing vocalizations and sounds to record: gibbons and lorikeets, African elephants and shoebill storks. Once back in the Education Lab, they listened and analyzed their recordings to get a feel for what it would be like to be a real bioacoustician!
Check back soon for Wild CSI: Pandas, Part 2
Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.