Panda Playing in Snow Goes Viral: How Do Zoos Plan for Weather?

Bao Bao, the 16-month-old cub at D.C.'s National Zoo, warmed hearts with her wintry romp.

A video of the Smithsonian National Zoo's young giant panda, Bao Bao, tumbling down a snowy hill in Washington, D.C., has become a warm and fuzzy distraction amid this week's frigid U.S. cold snap.

As the year's first snow blanketed the city on January 6, the 16-month-old female spent much of the morning playing in the snow for the first time—footage that has garnered more than two million views on YouTube, not to mention Twitter admirers worldwide.

Even National Zoo senior scientist Don Moore, who's more of a polar bear guy, admitted to National Geographic that "Bao Bao in the snow was cute with a capital C"—and shared the video on his social media networks. (Related: "Baby Giant Panda Debuts in D.C.: Why Do We Find It So Cute?")

"This is [giant pandas'] favorite time of year," Moore said. "They've got a big fat layer, a big, hairy coat—they're adapted to this kind of weather condition" in their natural home, the frigid mountains of central China.

It raises the question: How do zoos accommodate animals when the weather isn't what they're used to—say, D.C.'s infamous sweltering summers?

Keeping Their Cool

First off, "we try to give the animals as much choice as possible," Moore said—for example, by providing them with indoor quarters to escape either the hot or the cold.

Giant pandas are acclimated to live in temperate lowlands as well as cold alpine environments, but the animals in D.C. usually spend many of the hottest summer days inside in the air conditioning—just like us.

The zoo also provides pandas with ice blocks, a water pool, and a cool rock—a structure that contains pipes in which cool water circulates. Misters spray water throughout their zoo habitat to keep the heat down. (See more pictures of captive pandas in National Geographic magazine.)

On the other end of the spectrum, for animals that crave heat, such as tropical birds, the zoo sets up heat lamps that keep their enclosures cozy.

What's more, accredited U.S. zoos factor in an animal's natural climate before bringing it to live at a facility, Moore noted. For instance, northern zoos tend to have more Siberian tigers, which love the cold, while the National Zoo and others south of it often house Sumatran tigers or other subspecies that like it hot. In wintertime, zookeepers provide the Sumatran tigers with built-in caves that have radiant heat panels, as well as a thick bed of straw. (See pictures of the different types of tigers.)

"We plan for a zoo population that does well in the local environment, and pandas do well in the mid-Atlantic," he said.

No Work and Lots of Play

Panda-keeper Nicole MacCorkle agrees: "This is their kind of weather." Giant pandas eat only bamboo, a grass that is low in nutrition, and spend about half their time eating and half sleeping—which means they don't move much (to the chagrin of zoo visitors). (See "How Do Giant Pandas Survive on Bamboo?")

"Their whole way of life is all about conserving energy—but when they see the snow, they can't help it," she said.

MacCorkle speculates that Bao Bao's rolling down the hill in the snow is part of her innate urge to play.

Senior scientist Moore noted that studies show an important purpose for play: allowing a young animal to develop behaviors that might be of use in adulthood. Perhaps, he said, a baby panda learning how to somersault down a snowy hill could help it escape from a tiger later in life.

Pandas aren't the only zoo animals Moore has watched take a wintry frolic: He's seen elephants in Syracuse, New York, get down on their hind knees and slide downhill as if on a sled. In Malaysia, he's witnessed elephants slide down muddy hillsides in the same manner.

"As a professional animal behaviorist, I'm not suppose to anthropomorphize," he added, "but after watching animals over three decades, I think it's safe to say they're having fun."

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