When giant pandas Yang Yang and Lun Lun arrived at Zoo Atlanta in 1999 from China, a media blitz-and first-year experimental psychology graduate student Megan Wilson-awaited them. The pandas had become one of only two living pairs in the United States, and their arrival and acclimation to the zoo made national headlines.
Wilson, who had just begun graduate work at Georgia Tech focusing on animal behavior, offered to help in any way she could. She was charged with observing the two pandas for signs of stress from their trip from China as they adjusted to their new home. Although she says the job was less than glamorous at times-it involved checking their droppings-it hooked Wilson, who had previously studied harbor seals and other marine animals, on a new line of research that blossomed into her dissertation.
"I spent half the day just watching them," she remembers. "Then I got trained to collect data on those pandas."
A CHANCE OF A LIFETIME
Wilson chose Georgia Tech's experimental psychology program precisely because its animal behavior program would give her such hands-on opportunities with animals. The program has had close ties to Zoo Atlanta since 1984, when one of its professors-psychologist Terry Maple, PhD-took the zoo's helm. Maple, who is Wilson's graduate adviser, linked her up with Rebecca Snyder, PhD, a Georgia Tech graduate who is now the giant panda curator at Zoo Atlanta.
Once Wilson learned how to closely observe Yang Yang and Lun Lun's behaviors, she collected data on the pandas' feeding, resting and other behaviors. Wilson proved so apt at the work that, after her first semester, Maple offered her the chance of a lifetime: to study the reproductive behavior of giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, Zoo Atlanta's partner research institution in China. Wilson put her graduate coursework on hold to spend four and a half months in China studying the behavior of approximately 20 giant pandas at the research base and the Chengdu Zoo.
Such behavioral research on pandas is urgently needed, says Maple. Until recently, scientists had little information about the behavior of giant pandas, such as how they forage, play fight and raise cubs. However, understanding more about those characteristics could lead to new insights about their breeding and behavioral development that could help to save the endangered species, says Wilson.
For example, one Zoo Atlanta-Chengdu project is examining when keepers should separate panda cubs from their mothers, and whether separation at young ages might lessen the cubs' ability to breed as adults-something that's been a problem for captive pandas. The work Wilson did in China is contributing to this and other studies.
DISSERTATION AND BEYOND
When she returned to Atlanta in May 2000, Wilson continued her work with Zoo Atlanta's pandas and staff. For example, she headed up a study on how the zoo's panda facilities were meeting the needs of the animals, staff and visitors. The research, recently published in a Zoo Biology (Vol. 22, No. 4) special issue on captive giant pandas, found that while visitors and staff were generally pleased with the exhibit, they had some practical ideas about how to improve the pandas' space. For example, keepers proposed improvements to how they drain and fill the pools in the pandas' outdoor habitats, while others recommended that the pandas have more trees and available space.
But the main focus of Wilson's work at Zoo Atlanta has focused on the pandas' play behavior. In fact, for her dissertation, she is examining the sequences of behaviors that pandas use when they play-fight, such as biting, vocalizations and the cues that start and stop play-fighting.
Her work is the first to study the sequences of behavior in giant panda play-fighting, and will make a contribution to the growing literature on how giant pandas develop across the life span.
"The more we know about these giant pandas, the better we'll be able to save them," she explains.
To finish her dissertation research, Wilson will be tapping a large collection of videotapes of playing pandas. The tapes have enabled her to get a head start on her career: She began a full-time job in November as curator of carnivores and the Regenstein African Journey building at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Although her new job doesn't include giant panda work, her curatorial portfolio will provide her with a wealth of new opportunities. She oversees the management of African insects, fish, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, warthogs and lions, just to name a few.
As part of her new job, she facilitates research projects on the animals, such as studies of how changes in exhibits influence their behavior, or documenting the social behavior of newly introduced animals. She also manages how the exhibits are designed and modified and supervises the animals' breeding program. For example, Wilson determines whether animals ought to breed using the animals' Species Survival Plan-a conservation strategy developed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. She also works closely with the zoo-keepers, gathering their input to make animal-care decisions.
"They are the people who know those animals best," she explains. "They are the ones who can say, 'I don't think this animal is feeling very well,' or 'This animal is feeling great in its new exhibit.'"
For Wilson, it's a job that encompasses the very best of her psychology training-tapping her people skills to work with zoo staff and visitors, her research training to contribute to scientists' knowledge base and her animal management experience to make sure the animals have the best care possible.