Mei Xiang, the giant panda from the Smithsonian’s National zoo gave birth to twin cubs Saturday. It was a relatively quick birth, finishing about an hour after her water broke.
“Mei Xiang reacted to the cub by picking it up. The panda team began preparing for a birth when they saw Mei Xiang’s water break at 4:32 pm, and she was already having contractions. The sex of the cub won’t be determined until a later date.” said the zoo in a press release.
Two weeks ago, experts saw that Mei Xiang was sleeping more, eating less, and building a nest. She was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27, using semen from a giant panda in China plus another one from the zoo by the name of Tian Tian. It is not yet clear who the father is, but it will be determined through DNA analysis in a short while.
So far the cubs are vocalizing well and look healthy said the zoo in a news conference on Saturday evening. One weighed in at roughly 4 ounces and the other at 3. They are currently blind, pink in colour, and have wispy white coats. Experts are set to perform a neonatal exam on the babies once they are able to safely retrieve it. The zoo has not yet announced a name for either cub.
Mei Xiang, who has given birth to two surviving cubs in the past – ‘Tai Shan’, in 2005, and ‘Bao Bao’, 2013 – is expected to spend most of her time in her den for the next two weeks tending to her newborns.
“All of us are thrilled that Mei Xiang has given birth. The cub is vulnerable at this tiny size but we know Mei is an excellent mother,”said zoo Director Dennis Kelly in a press release. “Thank you to all of our excellent keepers, veterinarians, researchers and Chinese colleagues who contributed and therefore deserve credit for this conservation success.”
The zoo isn’t only ecstatic that the panda gave birth to twins, but they are also happy to have established a template for dealing with similar situations in the future. Pandas do not naturally nurse twins out in the wild, they will typically take care of one while the other is essentially left to die. However in the past decade or so, Chinese breeders have come up with a system where they swap out the cubs every several hours so that each one gets time to nurse and bond with its mother. This system has been proved to work with Mei Xiang, as the zoo keepers have already performed the swap three times without incident, with Mei Xiang cradling one while the other is kept in an incubator.
“If she gets aggressive toward us, we’re not going to get that close,” said giant panda biologist Laurie Thompson on Sunday.
Scientists in China and the U.S. alike have learned a lot since the technique was conceived. The survival rate for panda cubs have raised 20 percent within the last two decades. Despite this however, it still doesn’t mean breeding pandas has been very easy as of late, especially in America. In Washington alone more cubs have died than survived.
“We’ve all been involved in events that don’t go so well, so we are ecstatic that things are going great,” said the zoo’s chief veterinarian Don Neiffer.
“It’s very rare, obviously, for them to manage two cubs. If she were able to do it, we would certainly let her,” said Laurie Thompson. “She couldn’t figure out how to hold both of them. She couldn’t get ahold of one and have the other one under her arm and pick it up at the same time. She just kept fumbling with them.”