A very happy birthday to Mr. Wu, the San Diego Zoo’s youngest panda

Wu, the panda, celebrates his 6th birthday at the San Diego Zoo. 

San Diego Union-Tribune

The youngest of the San Diego Zoo’s three giant pandas is growing up.

Xiao Liwu, (pronounced “sshyaoww lee woo”) celebrated his 6th birthday on Sunday. Born July 29, 2012, at the zoo, he’s the last of six babies birthed by the prolific Bai Yun. His father is Gao Gao.

Under the watchful eye of Bai Yun, her son has matured into an inquisitive explorer. He’s now a young adult of breeding age. (Somewhere, panda matchmakers are doubtlessly searching mating databases for suitable partners.)

At his “Super Hero for Wildlife” birthday party, Xiao Liwu enjoyed bamboo-bread cupcakes and other treats, and played with stuffed burlap pillows. Volunteers made papier-mâché lanterns inscribed with conservation messages.

Zoo guests and keepers watched at the Barlin-Kahn Family Panda Trek and watched as Xiao Liwu, informally known as “Mr. Wu,” enjoyed his presents.

Xiao Liwu and his parents are on loan to the zoo from the People’s Republic of China under a landmark conservation program that began in 1996 with the arrival of Bai Yun and her then-mate, Shi Shi. Sadly, whatever amounts to romantic chemistry for pandas was lacking — they weren’t interested in each other.

The conservation program has uncovered much about panda biology, especially about reproduction.

In a more comic vein, the zoo’s conservation program provided inspiration for the news spoof movie Ron Burgundy. But with six successful panda births, no one is laughing at Bai Yun’s mothering skills. She made history in 1999 by giving birth to Hua Mei, the first giant panda to be born and survive in the United States.

Bai Yun, 26, is now too old to reproduce. But she has given many insights into panda biology and behavior and will continue to do so as a senior panda citizen. (Gao Gao, who is also aging, is not now on display. He is wild-born, and it’s estimated he was born in 1990, making him about 28.)

Bai Yun is “the most scientifically influential panda that has ever lived,” said Barbara Durrant, Henshaw Chair and director of reproductive physiology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in a 2015 Union-Tribune article.

If you can’t make it to the zoo, you can see Xiao Liwu and Bai Yun on the Panda Cam, at

Nearly 2,000 giant pandas now live in their native habitat in central China. The species is listed as vulnerable. It had long been listed as endangered, but its status was upgraded in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There’s much more to learn about pandas. These bear relatives are an evolutionary paradox. They descended from carnivorous ancestors, and are equipped with the short gut of a carnivore. Yet they almost exclusively eat bamboo, a food with very little nutritional value. And their gut microbes are inefficient at breaking down cellulose so it can be digested.

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