A Boon to Panda Conservation
This post isn't just a shameless excuse to show images of baby pandas.
Last week a giant panda cub was born in China after being conceived using frozen sperm, a potentially dramatic innovation that could free breeders from relying on semen from China's few virile males, and boost panda conservation efforts. There's video of the birth after the jump.
The new cub, born to You You, a female panda at the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in southwestern Sichuan, is the tenth born at the breeding facility this year. It was You You's third successful pregnancy.
Just after dawn, the pinkish, hairless cub emerged, and its mother was shown licking the tiny wiggling creature to clean it on footage broadcast by the state television channel CCTV.
Why Breeding With Frozen Sperm Is Significant
In addition to the 1,600 pandas in the wild, mostly in Sichuan province, China has 120 giant pandas in captivity. After last year's earthquake mostly destroyed the famous Wolong panda reserve, pandas were located to other reserves until the facility can be rebuilt. Another 27 pandas live in zoos outside the country.
To help the pandas breed, researchers sometimes encourage male pandas to mate with females, who are only fertile for three days a year. For that reason some male pandas never succeed at natural breeding.
But artificial insemination has become the most common practice when breeding captive pandas. In 2006, 34 pandas were born through artificial insemination in China and 30 survived — both record numbers for the endangered species. A year ago today, 4 artificially-conceived cubs were born at the Chengdu reserve in the space of 14 hours.
Benefits of Frozen Sperm
By eliminating the inbreeding that can happen when a few males are encouraged to mate with females in captivity, using frozen sperm could also make the species healthier and better prepared for the wild.
And aside from widening the gene pool, shipping frozen sperm from zoos around the world to Chinese breeding centers would also eliminate the need to ship the pandas themselves.
"With the technology, we can keep the sperm frozen for decades," Huang Yan, a researcher based at the Wolong reserve told Xinhua. "The freezing and thawing causes no harm or change to the genetic structure of the sperm, so the technology has no influence on the baby."
If the technique can be developed, pandas in San Diego, Mexico City and elsewhere could become parents with pandas thousands of miles away in China, helping to bring the world's giant panda population another step back from the brink of extinction.