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Why Is it so Hard for Pandas to Get Pregnant?

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In the wild, giant panda mating occurs just as nature specials would have you believe. There’s intense competition for each female, and the dominant male will mate with her several times to ensure success. And that strategy works: Wild female pandas generally give birth every two years. But that low birth rate means that captive breeding programs are essential to sustaining the endangered species. And in captivity, mating and successful pregnancies are tricky affairs—which is why it’s always a big deal when a cub is born, and devastating when one dies, as the 6-day-old cub at the National Zoo did last week.

Breeding pandas in captivity requires cooperation from zoos across the world, and is difficult for a number of reasons. Early on, scientists realized that the bears either lost interest in mating naturally or seemed like they didn’t know how. Take, for example, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which were given to the National Zoo to commemorate Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. They tried to mate, unsuccessfully, for a decade; once they figured out what they were doing, they had five cubs, but none reached adulthood.

Scientists speculate that the awkward fumbling that sometimes occurs between captive pandas might be because the cubs were taken from their mothers too early and have never seen the deed done; lack of interest in mating might be attributed to lack of competition for the female.

Even if pandas are in the mood, time is working against them. A female is in heat only once a year, in the spring, for 12 to 25 days—but she’s only receptive to mating for two to seven of those days, and she’s only actually fertile for 24 to 36 hours. After that time passes, any more attempts at mating have to wait until the next year. So when scientists aren’t experimenting with other methods to get pandas to go at it—like dosing one male with Viagra or showing a matched pair panda porn—they often rely on artificial insemination to get the job done.

After Mating: The Waiting Game

Neither artificial insemination nor old-fashioned mating will guarantee a pregnancy, and zoologists must bide their time before they know for sure that a panda is expecting. This, too, is complicated. Like many other species, pandas experience embryonic diapause, in which the embryo is fertilized, but not yet implanted in the uterine wall. The offspring can’t continue to grow until it has implanted, so while the gestation period is around 50 days, some panda pregnancies can stretch out to more than 160 days because of diapause.

And as if that all wasn’t difficult enough for zookeepers to figure out, female pandas can experience pseudopregnancy—they aren’t actually pregnant, but exhibit the same behaviors as pregnant pandas (decreased appetite, sluggishness, and even similar changes in hormones). It's almost impossible to distinguish between the two, because recently implanted fetuses are often too tiny to be spotted on an ultrasound. But there are some developments that might help scientists determine whether or not a panda is actually pregnant: Scientists in the reproductive physiology department at the San Diego Zoo used thermal imaging cameras to help determine if their panda, Bai Yun, was pregnant (she was—watch her cuddling with the little guy on the zoo's Panda Cam); the idea is that right before a fetus attaches to the uterus, there is increased blood flow to that area, which will show up as bright red on the camera.

Still, even if a panda is pregnant, and her cub is born, the tiny, blind and toothless young, which is about the size of a stick of butter at birth (or 1/900th the size of its mother), might not survive.

It all adds up to grim odds for pandas: In 2004, there were approximately 1600 left in the wild, and zoos around the world currently hold around 300 of the animals. But despite the rocky start that captive breeding programs had and the ongoing challenges zoos still face, the program has had its successes, especially in the last few years. And as scientists learn more about how these bears mate and raise their young, more pandas will have cubs that live to adulthood.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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