As 2021 comes to a close, we’ve rounded up the animal antics and species conservation stories that made us laugh, smile and cheer this year. Take a look back at some of our favorite moments caught on film.
1. Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian slide in the snow
We dare you to find something more delightful than giant pandas on a snow day. In late January, animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute woke up to a winter wonderland. Few seemed to enjoy it more than giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who slid and somersaulted their way around their outdoor yards. Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji took a more cautious approach to the winter weather but eventually worked up the courage to take his first bite of snow.
2. Keepers find a clever way to weigh a hummingbird
Spot is a calm and curious ruby-throated hummingbird. Like other Zoo animals, weigh-ins are part of his routine care. But how do you weigh a hummingbird? Hummingbirds beat their wings so rapidly that they can hover and feed on a flower without ever landing. So, keepers had to devise a clever way to get Spot to land and sit still on a scale. They built a special feeder with a wire perch positioned at just the right distance and filled it with Spot’s favorite treat: sugar water. Now, keepers can easily weigh Spot each month. At his last weigh-in, Spot tipped the scales at 3.1 grams — 1.9 grams less than a nickel!
3. Screaming hairy armadillo Sherman goes wild for enrichment
Sherman the screaming hairy armadillo knows a good time when he sees it. He tackles all types of enrichment with gusto. Screaming hairy armadillos only scream when they feel threatened, so keepers rarely hear Sherman scream — but they can always count on him to go wild for a rubber Kong toy!
4. A keeper named Crowe shares a special bond with Walnut the crane
The rumors are true … a crane with a crush on her caretaker lives at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute! White-naped crane Walnut was hand-raised and imprinted on humans, so she never bonded with other birds. At 23 years old, Walnut had never produced chicks. Then, in 2004, she met Chris Crowe. Crowe is Walnut’s caretaker at SCBI, and the two have a very special bond — Walnut considers Crowe her mate. Crowe built a trusting relationship with Walnut and has successfully performed artificial inseminations using genetic material from male cranes. Walnut has had eight chicks since she arrived at SCBI, contributing to the survival of her endangered species. The story of Walnut’s infatuation with Crowe took flight on TikTok in October.
5. Red pandas snack on blueberries in the snow
In January, Asia Trail keepers sprinkled blueberries around the red panda habitat. Red pandas Asa and Chris-Anne had a ball foraging for the sweet treats. Asa gave a “twitter” as she searched through the snow — one of the many ways red pandas communicate. They also squeal, hiss, grunt and “huff-quack!”
6. Two scimitar-horned oryx calves offer hope for the survival of this rare species
In July, ungulate keepers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute celebrated the birth of two scimitar-horned oryx calves. These births were significant, because they were the result of artificial insemination using frozen-thawed semen. SCBI scientists used a protocol developed for livestock to increase the chance of a successful oryx pregnancy, and their methods worked. This reproductive research will help to bolster the genetic diversity of scimitar-horned oryx populations in human care and in their native Chad, where reintroduction efforts began in 2016. The two calves born in July are thriving with their herd at SCBI and grow more confident each day.
7. A common merganser plays a game of “Duck, Duck, Go!”
Common merganser Fabio took off the moment he saw keepers sprinkling mealworms in the water. He speed-paddled across the pond at 6 miles per hour to be first in line for his favorite treat. The name merganser is derived from Latin and translates to “plunging goose,” a fitting name for a duck that often dives underwater. Common mergansers also eat large fish and use the serrated edges of their bills to grip their slippery prey.
8. Western lowland gorillas Moke and Kibibi wrestle for the championship belt
Western lowland gorilla Moke turned 3 years old in April, and he continues to grow more boisterous, intelligent and loving by the day. Like many 3-year-olds, Moke enjoys rummaging through all the toys he can find and is most rambunctious in the mornings. One of his favorite activities is wrestling with 12-year-old female gorilla Kibibi.
9. Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji sampled his first sweet potato
Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji celebrated many milestones this year, including tasting new foods. In January, he tried his first sweet potato. Using a piece of bamboo shred as a spoon, the giant panda team scraped some cooked sweet potato onto the end, then handed it to Xiao Qi Ji. He grabbed the bamboo in his mouth, paused for a moment to take in the new taste, then lay back and licked the remainder. When they offered him more, he would not stop nibbling on it.
10. Four chirping cheetah cubs turn 1
Cheetah cubs Amabala, Erindi, Jabari and Hasani were stealing hearts from the moment they debuted on the Cheetah Cub Cam last year. In April 2021, the cubs celebrated their first birthdays. Today, viewers can watch a new litter of cubs grow up on the Cheetah Cub Cam, which streams live from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia.
This story appears in the January 2022 issue of National Zoo News. Our whole team works diligently to care for our animals and keep you connected to the Zoo. With your support, our conservation mission continues. If you can, please join us in this important work by making a donation today. On behalf of the animals we care for and work to protect: thank you.