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Giant panda artificially inseminated at Toronto Zoo

Last Updated Apr 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm EST

Female panda Er Shun eats bamboo at the Panda House at the Chongqing Zoo in Chongqing, China, on Feb. 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

For the first time in Canada a giant panda has been artificially inseminated.

Dr. Gabby Mastromonaco, curator of reproductive programs and research at the Toronto Zoo, said they resorted to the procedure for six-year-old Er Shun because her partner, five-year-old Da Mao didn’t show any interest when she went into heat.

“They’re both inexperienced, they haven’t bred before and we wanted to make sure that we caught that one day, the one window that we had per year,” she explained. “You don’t want to waste her reproductive lifespan by waiting for it to all come together.”


Mastromonaco said Er Shun was inseminated on Sunday using semen flown in from China. Pandas are only pregnant for one-and-a-half months but it can take over five months for the fertilized egg to attach.

The success rate for artificial insemination in pandas is 60 per cent.

Mastromonaco said that given the panda’s endangered status, it’s important to keep the breed going.

The two much-celebrated, and furry, Chinese ambassadors arrived in Toronto last spring.

The buildup to their arrival, via a FedEx plane, began in February of last year, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in China for a three-day tour.

After more than a decade of negotiations with zoo officials, the Chinese agreed to loan Canada the pandas for 10 years — splitting the visit equally between Toronto and Calgary, unless the pair manages to breed.

Giant panda facts:

  • Er Shun (female) means “double smoothness” and Da Mao (male) means “first born.”
  • In the wild, a panda’s diet is 99 per cent bamboo. The rest is made up of other grasses, small rodents and musk deer fawns. At the Toronto Zoo the pandas will eat bamboo, biscuits, dog chow, apples and vitamins.
  • Pandas have the digestive system of carnivores, not herbivores, so most of the bamboo they eat passes quickly through their digestive tracts. To get enough nutrients, they spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of their time is mostly spent sleeping and resting.
  • Pandas don’t hibernate like other bears because their food source, bamboo, is available year-round and their diet doesn’t give them enough fat to carry them through a long period.
  • Female pandas are only receptive to breeding once a year for a 24- to 72-hour period
  • Pandas are born pink, hairless, blind and 1/900th the size of their mothers (about the size of a stick of butter)
  • If two cubs are born the mother will only look after one of them, likely because she is can’t suckle both. In captivity, keepers will help raise twin cubs by leaving one cub with the mother and switching it with the other every few days.
  • In the past the black and white markings on giant pandas may have helped them to blend into their snowy and rocky surroundings and avoid predators.
  • Pandas have broad, flat molars and an enlarged wrist bone — which works like an opposable thumb — to hold, crush and eat bamboo.
  • Pandas make a bleating sound like lambs and kids (young goats).