Make me a match . . .
Make me a match . . .
Find me a find . . .
Catch me a catch . . .
In a remote spot on the grounds of the National Zoo, in a low-rise brick office building, research scientist Jon Ballou sits with a computer full of personal data on the world’s 333 captive giant pandas.
Birth dates. Locations. Who was born in the wild. Who was born in captivity. Who begat whom. And, most important, who might be best — or worst — to have more baby pandas.
He is the panda matchmaker, if you will. He even has a “stud book,” although now it’s digital. It’s filled with tables, numbers and rankings.
Never mind the physical profiles: Heavyset. Black and white fur. Poor posture, and manners. Favorite food, bamboo.
Ballou’s interested in genes. He can tell you which pandas would be most suitable, genetically, to mate with which.
Mei was artificially inseminated on Sunday and Monday after she and Tian Tian failed to mate on their own, the zoo said.
The two have produced only one cub, Tai Shan, in the 10 years they have been at the zoo. If no cub is forthcoming this year, China has agreed to consider replacements. China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos.
The zoo has said it wants panda cubs in Washington and has focused intense research on panda reproduction.
The research shows that the chances of Mei becoming pregnant after years of failed attempts is low. Ballou said statistics suggest that Mei, 13, has a less than 10 percent chance.
Tian Tian, 14, has problems, too. He has proved to be a clueless breeder with flawed technique. Plus, his genes are not that valuable because his father has sired dozens of offspring in the captive population.
Ballou said both pandas ought to be replaced.
“Genetically, it would be best if we got a whole new pair,” he said. “If she can’t breed, and he’s from an overrepresented gene line, why not just start again? Get a couple of young pandas, (of) reproductive ages” and begin anew.
Short of that, Ballou said it would be best to get a new female. “If she’s not going to breed, then she’s genetically dead,” he said in an interview last week.
Ballou said his research is aimed at avoiding panda inbreeding.
“We’re trying to keep the captive population with as much genetic diversity as we can, ” he said as he sat in his office.
Inbreeding can pass along genetic mutations that could lead to potential health problems, he said. No such problems are known in the panda population so far, Ballou said, and experts would like to keep it that way.
As of last November, there were 333 in captivity around the world, mostly in China, according to a report co-authored by Ballou. Twenty-five cubs were born last year, and eight pandas died. A good target population is 500, according to the report.
Each panda gets a number and goes into the stud book.
The book also tracks where a panda has been moved over its lifetime and notes its death.