Inside the National Zoo's Hormone Lab (Giant Panda Pregnancy Watch)

Uploaded by SmithsonianVideos on 23.04.2010

My name is Sarah Putman and I'm a laboratory technician at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Our Endocrinology Lab is located at the National Zoo's Front Royal, Va. campus.
Our hormone monitoring uses non-invasive techniques. It's a lot easier on the animals--it's very stress free.
It's easier for us to collect the fecal sample from a lion than a blood sample from a lion.
Can you imagine trying to get a blood sample from the lion every day for a year?
We collected the fecal samples and we can monitor those the same way we can monitor a blood sample.
Right now I'm working with some panda fecal samples.
And most people would think that working with poo is pretty gross, but it's really not that bad.
It's kind of like grass and it doesn't even smell that bad.
It actually smells like green tea
We also monitor the hormones of a variety of animals
from across the globe. Both in captive environments and in the wild.
We're monitoring the hormones of the lions that are currently at the National Zoo
The lions did breed in January
She hasn't started cycling again yet which may mean that she's pregnant and we may be looking
for some lion cubs in the spring.
We monitor hormones because it's another piece in the conservation puzzle
In order to exist, a species has to reproduce
and we can apply the information we learn in the lab
to the animals in the wild to help maintain their populations
Probably our most famous clients
are the giant pandas. We have a breeding pair at the National Zoo and every year we monitor
their reproductive hormones during the breeding season.
Giant pandas only ovulate once a year and their fertile period is about 48 hrs long
So the timing is very critical
Before the beginning of breeding season we start by analyzing Mei Xiang's urine samples
to monitor her baseline hormone values.
As we get closer to the breeding season, we rely on the keepers
and the volunteers at the Panda House.
They are monitoring her behaviors and when they notice she's starting to exhibit
signs of estrus, they let us know and we start analyzing samples more frequently.
The next thing we're looking for is very significant precipitous drop her estrogen levels.
That tells us that she has ovulated and she's fertile and ready to be inseminated.
We can schedule all of the
veterinarians and the reproductive physiologists
to all come together at the Zoo and inseminate the panda.
Once they've done the artificial insemination, it's all dependent on Mei Xiang
We then monitor her urine for progestagens. What we're looking for is the rise in progestagens.
Once that rise happens we know that we have about
about 45 days
until the and of her reproductive cycle. And that will either mean
the birth of a cub or the end of her pseudopregnancy.
One of the most interesting things about pandas is that their hormones look the same
whether they're pregnant or not. And that's what's so difficult about the panda--
We can't tell whether she's pregnant
or pseudopregnant just based on her hormones. What we can do is use other observational tools
Vets can do ultrasounds
to see if they can see a fetus, but the problem with that is
that because it's so small
it's a little difficult see. Another thing that staff can look at is her behavior.
She'll start to cradle her toys, she starts to den up, she starts to make a nest and that tells staff
that she's near the end of her reproductive cycle.
We let the panda staff know that they should be on high alert for the end of her
reproductive cycle which could end in the birth of a panda cub
So I've just finished the analysis
of the most recent urine samples from a Mei Xiang
I'm sorry, panda fans. It looks like she's still elevated
and that means you'll have to wait a little longer for news.