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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
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

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

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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