Category — Africa exhibit
For all of you who have been pining to meet the cubs and lamenting that they aren’t on exhibit, allow me to offer a small consolation: lion cubs this young are actually a little bit boring! Now, before you gasp at my impassivity, allow me to explain. In the wild, lions are inactive for up to 20 hours a day. That means there are only 4 hours a day where lions aren’t sleeping or resting. What I’ve learned in the 3 weeks following November 13th is that lion cubs and nursing mothers are even less exciting! For 3 weeks, we’ve seen little more than nursing, sleeping and grooming from our young little bunch. But in this last week (the cubs’ 4th week of life), something magical has started to happen.
The cubs are finally becoming more mobile and a little braver, and with these new developments, their little personalities are beginning to shine through! Since their sexes are still a mystery to us, we’ve been referring to the cubs based on their birth order (Cub #1 was the first born, then came Cub #2 followed by Cub #3). Here are some of my observations of the newest members of our African lion pride.
Cub #1: Fearless Leader, Bold and Stubborn
Cub #1 was the first into the world and has continued to be the pioneer of the group ever since. Cub #1 has always appeared to be the largest of the 3, and it’s hands-down the bravest in the bunch. #1 mastered the art of crawling outside of the nest area first, scaling the hackberry log and sometimes tumbling head-first to the ground below in order to gain unchallenged access to Imani for some prime nursing time and one-on-one attention from “Mama”.
Cub #1 is the most vocal of the bunch as well, often standing on the hackberry log and just crying out to anyone who’ll listen. Sometimes Cub #1 will do this vocalizing immediately after a private nursing session, so I’m inclined to think that maybe it just likes to hear itself make noise? Imani seems to be the toughest on Cub #1, often batting it around and almost “playing” with it in a manner she doesn’t usually employ with the other two. But Cub #1 can absolutely handle the tough-love and isn’t shy about letting mom know if it isn’t appreciated. Cub #1 seems very strong-willed and stubborn, relentlessly pursuing its interests even when Imani tries her best to keep #1 safely inside of the straw nesting area. And on more than one occasion, I’ve caught Cub #1 chewing on Imani’s tail. :) If genetics play any role in the development of personality, then Cub #1’s independence is most definitely from Imani’s side of the gene pool.
Cub #2: The Pacifist, Easy-Going and Low-Maintenance
Cub #2 flew under the keepers’ radars for a good long while, not really standing out for any reasons (good or bad). Cub #2 seems to contribute the least to Imani’s parental challenges, often staying put wherever it’s placed and waiting patiently for Imani to return to the nest. Cub #2 rarely calls to or seeks out Imani and simply takes the opportunity to nurse whenever it’s readily available. Cub #2 patiently accepts being groomed and never resists when Imani attempts to pick it up. Whenever a skirmish breaks out between siblings over a nipple, Cub #2 is the most likely to compromise by relocating to another teat. “It’s okay, I’ll just go nurse from this nipple instead.”
Cub #2 rarely strays away from the group and seems the most dependent upon the companionship of its siblings. I watched once as Cub #2 was awoken from a nap by the sounds of Cub #1 nursing outside of the nest box. Cub #2 got up to investigate and stopped on top of the hackberry log, staring in the direction of Imani and Cub #1. It looked like #2 was trying to gather the courage to go over the log and join the nursing party, but after a couple of feeble attempts to make it over the log, #2 simply gave up and went back to nap beside the warmth and comfort of its other sibling. Adventurous is not a word I’d use to describe #2. Cub #2’s affinity for companionship and its penchant for the safe and familiar remind me very much of John!
Cub #3: Scrappy Underdog, The Come-Back Kid!
Cub #3 has been on my radar from the moment it was born. Easily the runt of the litter, #3 has had some struggles from the beginning. Unlike its siblings who picked up nursing quite easily, Cub #3 really had to practice and develop the skill-set. Keepers would watch as Cub #3 would set out in the direction of Imani and its nursing siblings, and unnervingly, in many cases, Cub #3 would struggle to make it to a teat. Sometimes it would randomly turn and start heading in another direction, and sometimes it would make it all the way up to Imani’s belly, only to keep going and climb up and over her back instead of stopping to nurse. On most occasions when Cub #3 did manage to find itself in the correct position to nurse, it would fight for an already occupied nipple instead of latching on to one of the two readily available ones.
We watched apprehensively as Cub #3 struggled, but it always seemed to manage some quality nursing time every day. To our relief, Cub #3 slowly began to get the knack of nursing and began to catch up to its siblings in growth and development. Though Cub #3 still fights for already occupied nipples, it seems to have developed an effective technique to win the prized teat. By sticking its paw in a sibling’s face and pushing them out of the way, Cub #3 has often avoided the unpleasant task of warming up his own nipple for nursing. ;) Cub #3 is usually always the “last one to the party” sleeping in instead of getting up to nurse, and sometimes electing to climb over top of Mama and its siblings instead of taking its turn being groomed. From what I’ve seen, Cub #3 is its own beautiful blend of both parents.
Boys or Girls?
We still aren’t certain of the cubs’ sexes because the keepers aren’t handling them unnecessarily at this time. Accurately sexing young felids can be tricky, so we don’t want to make any false reports (but I do have my guesses for each cub!). In all likeliness, the cubs will have their first round of vaccines and their first wellness checks at approximately 8 weeks of age, and we’ll be able to sex the cubs at that time as well. This should give us all something to look forward to mid-January, and maybe John can help us with the big gender reveals!! Stay tuned and as always, thank you so much for all of your love and support! Happy Holidays from Imani, John, Cubs 1, 2, and 3 and the Africa team keepers!
December 13, 2014 12 Comments
Imani and John are parents! On Thursday, November 13th, African lion Imani gave birth to 3 beautiful, healthy cubs.
I could tell the minute I walked into the lion building that it was the big day! Before I explain myself, here’s a little background on the set-up in our lion holding area: Every night for the last week or so, we’ve kept John separated from Imani in order to provide her a safe and secure denning area for birthing. We had, however, been allowing John to “visit” with Imani in the mornings to maintain their bond. Most mornings, that meant that John and Imani would lounge around in the same holding together with John staring at Imani for long periods of time and Imani napping on the floor. On Thursday morning, however, our pair was having some very different and confused interactions.
Imani was really active, going from one holding to another and spending a lot of time rubbing on the mesh, and shift doors. She seemed to be irritated, uncomfortable and oddly affectionate all at once! She even presented herself to John a couple of times and when he tried to mount her, she swung around and smacked him in the face! Then she followed him around the holding and nipped him on the side a couple of times, as if to say “You’re the reason I feel like this!” Poor John was pretty bewildered by her behavior, but I knew exactly what that behavior meant. As females get closer to delivering their cubs, they will begin to show less tolerance for the male’s presence in their den area. In other words, the labor process was getting started and Imani felt it was time for John to go “sit in the waiting room”. ;) So we shifted him across the hall into his own holdings and secured Imani into her private and cozy birthing den.
She seemed to relax a little bit now that John was safely away from her, but she still appeared quite uncomfortable. From our video monitors, we observed lots of tail smacking, changing positions constantly, licking her abdomen and genital area, and just general discomfort. This behavior continued throughout the morning and early afternoon. Then, at 3:28pm, we saw Imani jump up make a lap around her enclosure, and a tiny paw was visible sticking out under her tail! Imani looked so freaked out and confused with that first cub; “what in the world is happening?!” was written on her face. She did this frantic spin move and the little cub practically came flying out of her! Thankfully, she began cleaning it up immediately and we could see that it was moving around! Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief and continued to watch the monitors anxiously.
We could see Imani having contractions leading up to the second birth. Her abdomen would tense and her back would arch. It was more than 2 hours before the second cub was born at 5:45pm. This time, Imani seemed much less surprised by the process and she delivered the second cub quite easily. As before, she cleaned this one up and even scooted it over into the same area with its sibling. She then laid down in front of both of them and that was the first time we noticed how exhausted she looked. She tried to stay awake, but her eyelids kept shutting and she finally just laid her head in the straw for a quick nap as the new cubs rooted around and began their first attempts at nursing.
37 minutes after the arrival of the second cub, Imani was sprawled out and looked completely asleep as the 2 little lions fumbled around trying to figure out how to nurse. Then all of a sudden, her body produced a large contraction and just like that, the third cub was half-way out! Poor Imani shot out of her laying position and spun around to lick herself just as the third cub came out. She seemed the most disturbed by that third and final birth. She even sent a half-hearted hiss in the direction of the 3rd cub and didn’t clean it right away. It seemed like she was irritated that this 3rd baby had aroused her from such a deep sleep with no warning at all! She must have forgiven it though, because she finally went over to clean it up and welcome it to the world.
The keeper and curator staff continued to watch over Momma and her babies for the next 6 hours to make sure that all the cubs had been delivered and the labor was finished. It was amazing to see how mobile the cubs were right from the beginning. They instinctively began crawling and searching for Imani’s teats to start nursing. Similarly, it was so impressive to watch Imani’s maternal instincts kick into gear. She was so gentle maneuvering around the cubs, cautious and aware of each of them in the nesting area. She laid on her side and even held her leg up so that the babies could easily access her milk. Slowly, but surely, one after another, all three cubs had latched onto a nipple and Imani lay cooperatively and unmoving so that they could eat.
Imani has been such an attentive and gentle mother. She’s grooming each of them regularly and stimulating them to go to the bathroom (as she should). She isn’t entirely comfortable with picking up the cubs yet. Early on she tried with one cub and it started wiggling around frantically so she dropped it and just looked confused. On one occasion, the group of 3 wound up spread out all over the holding area and it was almost comical reading Imani’s facial expressions. She was clearly annoyed that her wriggly babies had wondered so far from each other, making it difficult for her to keep track of them all. She went over to the cub farthest away from the other two and gently picked it up in her mouth around its head and shoulders. She brought it out onto the heated concrete area near the other two cubs and used her paws to scoot them all together into a lump of baby lions. Then she laid down right in front of them as if to say “The nipples are right here! Don’t go wandering off again!”
She’s doing so well, and I know you all would be proud of her! It’s been amazing to watch this new and gentle side of Imani emerge as she takes care of her cubs. So far, all three cubs have been nursing regularly and spending most of their time sleeping. They go on little adventures now and then (mostly crawling over Momma and each other). So far, all indications point towards happy and healthy babies, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The first few weeks of their lives are absolutely crucial and keepers are taking care to give Imani plenty of privacy and alone time with the babies. It will be a while before we are able to go in and perform the cubs’ first wellness exams and determine genders.
We will do our best to keep everyone informed about John and Imani’s new family in the weeks to come!! In order to give Imani and the cubs the privacy and bonding time they need, keepers will be staying pretty hands-off for a little while. For this reason, our lion cub coverage will be pretty limited to “screen shots” from the video monitors, but as soon as we feel Imani is comfortable enough with our presence, we’ll try to get some good pics and video of our new additions! As always, thank you so much for all of your love, support and understanding during this special time! So excited to have 3 new lions at the Cincinnati Zoo!
November 19, 2014 3 Comments
Many visitors to the Zoo have met our two African lions, John and Imani, in the new Africa exhibit. These two young cats were paired up earlier this year with the hope that they would breed and produce their first litter of cubs in the near future. The good news is that breeding activity has been observed on several occasions this past year, and, after at least one pseudopregnancy, it appears that Imani is now pregnant and due to give birth within the next month. Which raises the question – how do you diagnose pregnancy in a lion anyway?
Scientists at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) commonly use three methods for pregnancy diagnosis in wildlife species: ultrasonography, fecal progesterone analysis, and urine relaxin analysis. Ultrasonography remains the gold standard since visualization of a fetus with a strong heartbeat is the definitive proof of pregnancy. CREW frequently uses abdominal ultrasonography to diagnose and monitor pregnancies in our domestic cats (see below). However, this method can be challenging to apply with a potentially dangerous carnivore, like Imani. Through the Zoo’s operant conditioning program, Imani eventually may be trained to allow voluntary abdominal ultrasound exams, but this method is currently not an option with her.
The second approach for pregnancy diagnosis is the use of fecal progesterone analysis. Lions, like other felids, show an increase in fecal progesterone levels shortly after ovulation that is detectable using CREW’s hormone assays. If lions ovulate but don’t conceive, they will have a pseudopregnancy that lasts 50 to 60 days and then progesterone will decline back to baseline levels. If progesterone concentrations stay elevated beyond 60 days post-breeding, then the female is most likely pregnant. Imani’s fecal hormone profile (below) shows progesterone levels increasing coincident with her last breeding activity and staying elevated through at least 66 days post-breeding (the last fecal sample tested).
The third option for pregnancy diagnosis involves measurement of another hormone, relaxin, that is produced by the placenta and excreted in the urine. CREW has helped to pioneer the use of a bench-top relaxin test for pregnancy diagnosis with urine from cats. Our previous research has found that pregnant domestic cats and Pallas’ cats produce high levels of urinary relaxin that are detectable with the bench-top test, but pregnant cheetahs and clouded leopards apparently do not. Imani is the first lion that we have evaluated late in a suspected pregnancy. Urine samples collected from Imani at day 73 and 74 post-breeding were both positive for relaxin (below, circled line in window #2), providing further presumptive evidence of an ongoing pregnancy. In the absence of a sonogram showing a viable fetus, the positive results from the progesterone and relaxin assays provide our best evidence that Imani is pregnant.
Hopefully, Imani will confirm our diagnosis in the next few weeks with the anticipated birth of her first litter of cubs. Since Imani will be a first-time mom, she will be provided with a quiet, off-exhibit den area to give birth and bond with her cubs, and likely will remain off-exhibit until early spring when the cubs are a bit older.
October 28, 2014 No Comments