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CBN Aids in Birth of Giant Panda Cub

On the afternoon of Sept. 6, 2006, three years of hard work paid off when Zoo Atlanta announced its giant panda, Lun Lun, had given birth to her first cub.

As the news spread, people around the world joined in the celebration, including a few investigators in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience who began working with the zoo in late 2003 to aid the artificial insemination process in the giant panda.

“I am so happy Lun Lun had a baby,” said Georgia State University’s Mary Karom, laboratory supervisor for CBN Director Elliott Albers. “She certainly gave us a run for our money.”

CBN joined the effort to artificially inseminate Lun Lun after attempts to naturally mate the female panda and her male mate, Yang Yang, were unsuccessful. Albers offered his lab’s assay services to improve the efficiency of the estrogen testing process.

In the fall of 2003, Karom met with Zoo Atlanta Curator of Giant Panda Research and Management, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, and soon began working to validate a commercial kit that would determine Lun Lun’s peak ovulation period in just a matter of hours as opposed to days.

Previously, the San Diego Zoo measured Lun Lun’s daily estrogen levels, but due to the distance from Atlanta, the results would often not be available for a few days. Because pandas only go into estrus once a year, in March, and the peak mating period is a short window of only three or four days, it is critical to predict receptivity of the female for mating right away. Karom’s assay and the close proximity of the CBN to the zoo made quick assay results a reality.

“I could run the assay using our kit and get results to Dr. Snyder in about four hours as opposed to days,” Karom said. “With results this fast, they (the zoo staff) could compare behavioral and hormonal changes in Lun Lun on the same day to determine optimal artificial insemination, and with only a three-day window for conception, this information was very helpful.”

Snyder also composed graphs charting the daily hormone assay results. These graphs, developed in partnership with the CBN, were displayed to the public outside the panda exhibit as part of an information panel about giant panda reproduction.

“The panel explains that hormonal information provided by the CBN is important for predicting ovulation and the birth window for Zoo Atlanta’s female giant panda, Lun Lun,” Snyder said. “The panel also allows us to display a chart of the female’s hormone profile, so visitors can track her progress during estrus and possible pregnancy. This chart is updated daily during estrus and weekly during possible pregnancy. It’s very popular with zoo visitors and helps people to understand the science behind giant panda reproduction.”

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