Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer jokes that she has a success rate of more than 100% in helping giant pandas become pregnant through artifical insemination because her efforts have resulted in pregnancies every time- and twins every time.
Last May, Aitken-Palmer joined the Chicago Zoological Society veterinary team, bringing with her a wealth of pioneering experience working to revitalize endangered species.
Until 2003, giant pandas were bred but without thought to doing so in an organized, scientific manner, and genetic diversity among individuals in managed care was a problem. After 13 years of analysis and strategic pairings, genetic diversity has been maintained. This type of care and support to save the species-much of it thanks to conservationists from China- has moved its classification from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in the wild.
Giant Panda twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun. Photo courtesy of Zoo Atlanta
Aitken-Palmer used her expertise in giant panda reproduction to perform artifical insemination for the giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and Zoo Atlanta. The result was the healthy birth of three sets of twins.
Aitken-Palmer's work with giant pandas began when she was an intern at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine. Later, she completed a Ph.D. studying giant panda reproduction at the University of Maryland, spending four years part-time at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China. Aitken-Palmer's doctoral research was the world's largest single long-term study of giant pandas' biology. She has helped close gaps in knowldege of the species' reproduction, health, husbandry, and genetics.
Giant pandas are just the beginning. Aitken-Palmer also helped complete a large-scale biological survey of red pandas in Chengdu, collecting baseline data to determine normal paramenters for the species. She hopes to use those data to continue to advance the knowldge of red pandas here at Brookfield Zoo.
This article originally appeared in Gateways, Brookfield Zoo’s member magazine.