On day three, the students were back in the lab learning about behavioral biology and a very important tool used in this discipline, the ethogram. An ethogram is a detailed list of behaviors and activities of a particular species. As a panda behaviorist, I use our panda ethogram on a daily basis. It’s an invaluable tool that can help us understand why an individual animal is engaged in a particular behavior, as well as understanding the general behavioral patterns of a species as a whole.
I created a scaled-down version of our panda ethogram for the students and put together two different video clips for them to observe and decode. Video A contained footage of Bai Yun during the breeding season, and Video B contained footage of her during a non-breeding time of year. The task for the students was to decode Bai Yun’s behavior, using their ethograms, and determine whether or not she was in estrus.
Once the kids understood ethograms, they were back out at the Wild Animal Park putting their new skills to the test, observing the African elephants and creating an ethogram based on the behaviors they observed.
On day four, the students were introduced to yet another important discipline that we utilize in our giant panda research program: reproductive endocrinology. This is the field of science where hormone levels are monitored to help determine reproductive condition. At the San Diego Zoo, we test our female pandas’ hormone levels (via urine analysis) throughout the year to monitor her reproductive condition. It’s a highly useful tool that helps both with breeding introductions as well as preparing for parturition. In the conservation lab, the CSI students got to see what it might feel like to be a reproductive endocrinologist. They practiced working with pipettes and even conducted a mock EIA (enzyme immunoassay) to tests estrogen levels. This was a great opportunity for the kids to have a truly hands-on laboratory experience!
On the final day of the camp, the students were bused from the Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research to the Zoo. I got to meet the kids and show them all around the Giant Panda Research Station. They toured all of our research offices and saw the video monitoring areas where we control the Zoo’s Panda Cam and monitor the bears throughout the facility. They also got to see the behind-the-scene animal areas like the panda bedrooms, the nursery, and the new bamboo coolers. We all had lunch in the panda conference room, which is where the Panda Team meets to make all of the important decisions regarding the pandas.
I also took the students into one of our more private exhibits so that they could conduct some live behavioral observations on Zhen Zhen. They had some practice back in the lab watching the videos I put together, but now was their chance to do the real thing live! They all did a great job. Little Zhen Zhen made it pretty easy for them, though…I think she slept during most of the observation session.
The grand finale of the week was a visit, up close and personal, with little Zhen Zhen. Panda keeper Juli Borowski brought her into a special enclosure in the back where the kids could sit just a few feet away from her. They LOVED it! Understandably. It is quite an extraordinary experience to see such a beautiful animal, like a giant panda, up close. The students got to ask Juli questions about the pandas and also what it’s like to be a panda keeper.
This summer’s Wild CSI camp was a huge success! The students had a wonderful time, and the Conservation Education group did an amazing job. During one of our follow-up meetings, we discussed how most of the students seemed to think that all scientists wore lab coats and worked with microscopes. And though many do, there are also a considerable amount of scientists who don’t work in a lab. I think this camp really opened up their eyes to how diverse (and fun!) the field of conservation biology is. And my hope is that they were inspired to make changes in their families’ lives that better support our planet, and that, maybe, they might even decide to pursue a career in conservation science when they get older.
Pamela Crowe is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.