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Knocked Up

Zoo researcher develops panda pregnancy test.

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Chinese scientists have discovered showing "panda porn" may increase sexual desire in the typically prudish captive giant panda. But once the porn has been shoved under the bed, how can zookeepers determine if female pandas are preggers?

Leave it to the Memphis Zoo to create a pregnancy test for giant pandas. Erin Willis of zoo's Department of Conservation and Research recently developed a new method to detect and oversee safe and successful panda pregnancies.

The Memphis Zoo has been receiving considerable attention from the international scientific community for the development. With only 1,600 left in the wild and nearly 300 in zoos or breeding facilities, pandas are on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species.

Captive pandas, like the Memphis Zoo's Ya Ya and Le Le, have a reputation as poor breeders. Several attempts at impregnanting Ya Ya have so far been unsuccessful.

"What's really exciting about this particular discovery is that it will have direct application on giant pandas and how we manage them in captivity," said Andy Kouba with the Department of Conservation and Research at the Memphis Zoo.

"Bears have what's called pseudopregnancy," Willis said. "They'll look like they're pregnant, whether they're pregnant or not. So you can't usually determine whether they're pregnant by normal means, which a lot of times means using a hormone, progesterone."

Willis' test examines a protein called ceruloplasmin, which normally increases in response to inflammation and was found to increase in the urine of pandas at one week of pregnancy. Older, less accurate methods of testing pregnancy in giant pandas didn't test for ceruloplasmin, which isn't produced during a pseudopregnancy.

"It's a very early test," Willis said. "You can actually use ultrasound, but [pandas] have what's called delayed implantation. The embryo doesn't implant for a long time, so you can't use ultrasound early in the pregnancy. "

The early notice provided by the new test is especially valuable for giant pandas in captivity because it affords zoos plenty of time to prepare for and predict the female's due date.

"In every term pregnancy I've analyzed, there's been a drop [of ceruloplasmin] 24 days prior to birth," Willis said. "That will give keepers and managers an idea of when a birth will occur."

While the Memphis Zoo funded Willis' research, Kouba says he expects the results of her work to bring in outside grants for additional research.

"People have been looking for a way to [detect] pregnancy for nearly 40 years in bear species like this and other species that undergo pseudopregnancies," Kouba said. "We're excited about ... offering these resources to other zoos. We're getting a lot of requests for [Willis'] assistance from researchers, and we're trying to figure out how to meet that need."

The Memphis Zoo is considering working with a private company to make the test available to other zoos and researchers.

"This initial study did show that there are quite a lot of lost pregnancies, and I need to do future studies to determine what the rate of lost pregnancies is in captivity," Willis said. "Knowing there are a lot of lost pregnancies and doing investigations to see why that's the case is definitely going to help the conservation of giant pandas."

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