Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) Biomedical Survey: Systematic Collection of Biomaterials
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Donald L. Janssen1, DVM, DACZM; Zhang Anju2; Zhang Hemin3; Susie Ellis4, PhD; JoGayle Howard5, DVM, PhD; David Wildt5, PhD
1Zoological Society of San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA; 2Chinese Technique Committee of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu, Sichuan, PRC; 3Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda, Wolong, Sichuan, PRC; 4Conservation International, Washington, D.C., USA; 5National Zoological Park Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, VA, USA


The value of collecting biomaterials for planned or unforeseen future investigations makes intuitive sense. The purpose of this presentation is to show that when biomaterials are collected in a systematic way and integrated with other data similarly collected, the value of those materials can be enhanced.

The biomedical survey of giant pandas in captivity was a multidisciplinary, multinational effort to provide detailed information on the health and reproductive potential of the captive population of giant pandas in China.1 There is a consensus in China that all giant pandas in captivity should be genetically managed. In 1996, the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) was invited to help develop a genetic management plan for giant pandas. The biomedical survey was a direct outgrowth and first step of that plan.2

The methods used for the biomedical survey were designed to collect as much data as possible at a single point in each animal’s life. The data were recorded on forms according to the respective disciplines (anesthesia, medical, reproduction, behavior, nutrition, and pathology) and in a centralized database. Biomedical samples collected included whole blood and plasma, serum, tissue, hair, vaginal swabs, and semen. Samples were analyzed immediately, if possible, and stored on-site. All biomaterials remained in China. All data and integrated analyses were discussed with the CBSG and Chinese teams, and then left in China for documentation and record.

In order to genetically manage the captive giant panda population, managers must know the parentage of each animal. Parentage, especially paternity, of captive-born giant pandas is often unknown because of the common practice of combining natural breeding with artificial insemination from multiple males. Using the tissue, hair, and whole blood samples collected during the survey, researchers have been able to determine the parentage of these animals. From this, an accurate pedigree can be determined, which, in turn, can be used to establish a management plan. Further, the accurate pedigree can be used to integrate with other biomedical findings of the population. This is an example of using biomaterials, collected systematically, for an intended purpose.

Eight pandas surveyed exhibited a stunted stature with multiple associated medical problems. All but one were captive born and either juveniles or non-reproducing adults. Five had moderate to severe ascites apparent on ultrasound. Five had significant dental disease typified by heavily stained, pitted, and excessively worn teeth for their age. All eight had a history of chronic gastrointestinal disease, some beginning during their juvenile development. Several had a history of respiratory disease as juveniles. The etiology of this syndrome is not known, but the effect could be very significant in terms of the sustainability of the population. Differential diagnoses include inappropriate juvenile nutrition, canine distemper, and fluorosis. The serum and other biomaterials archived during the biomedical survey can now be used for specific testing to rule out the various etiologies. This is an example of using biomaterials, collected systematically, for a purpose that could not be anticipated in advance.

Collecting information and biomaterials from a population of animals provides an opportunity to integrate data and materials in such a way that both the data and the materials become more valuable than they would otherwise. In the first example, knowing the parentage made it possible to use other data and make decisions about the management of the populations. In the second example, trends detected from examining the data gave new use to the archived biomaterials.


The authors thank the following institutions for their major support: Chengdu Zoo and Research Base, Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, Beijing Zoo, Chongqing Zoo, Zoological Society of San Diego, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Giant Panda Foundation, Saint Louis Zoo, Columbus Zoo, and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. The authors also express appreciation to Mabel Lam.

Literature Cited

1.  Janssen, D.L., A. Zhang, Zang, H., M. Wang, et al. 2000. Biomedical survey of giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in captivity in China. Proceedings, American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine Joint Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, Pp. 1–3.

2.  Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, 1996. Giant panda captive management planning workshop. Chengdu, China. Pp. 266.


Speaker Information
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Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM
Zoological Society of San Diego
San Diego, CA, USA

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