National Zoo Says Female Giant Panda May Be Expecting Another Cub

August 15, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Giant panda Mei Xiang at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. (Smithsonian's National Zoo)

D.C. may have a new furry resident on the way.

The National Zoo announced on Friday that its giant female panda, Mei Xiang, appears to be pregnant, and could be giving birth to a new cub over the weekend.

After conducting an ultrasound on the panda on Friday morning, veterinarians found tissue that looked like a fetus, zoo officials said.

But pandaphiles shouldn’t get too excited just yet. The scientists warned there is still a “substantial chance” that Mei Xiang could have a miscarriage or that the fetus could “resorb”. 

Still, the zoo said it was hopeful for a healthy new cub, and invited the public to follow the birth in real time on the Smithsonian’s 24-hour panda cams.

“In the middle of a pandemic, this is a joyful moment we can all get excited about,” said Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “We are optimistic that very shortly she may give birth to a healthy cub or cubs. We’re fortunate that Mei Xiang participated in the ultrasound allowing us to get sharp images and video.”

Scientists have been tracking changes to Mei Xiang’s reproductive system since March, when she was artificially inseminated using semen from Tian Tian, the zoo’s male panda.

They first detected the fetal tissue last week, and have since noticed changes in Mei Xiang’s bone structure, along with increased blood flow to her uterus.

The 22-year-old panda’s behavior has changed as well: she’s taking more naps, building nests, and licking her body more often. Her appetite — pandas eat up to 40 pounds of bamboo every day — has also decreased.

Mai Xiang is already a mother of three, though her children have all moved to China. Her youngest cub, Bei Bei, was flown to Chengdu airport in November to the chagrin of many Washingtonians.

Veterinarians at the National Zoo say they noticed a fetal development during giant panda Mei Xiang’s ultrasound on Friday, August 14, 2020. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Though the National Zoo’s giant pandas have become the District’s unofficial mascots, they are only in Washington temporarily, on loan under a breeding agreement with China’s Wildlife Conservation Association.

Under that deal, which expires in December 2020, cubs born at the zoo must move back to China once they reach the age of four. The Smithsonian is currently in the process of negotiating a new deal with CWCA.

The zoo’s panda habitat will be closed to the public until further notice to give Mei Xiang some peace and quiet. According to zoo officials, panda cubs usually make their public debut at the age of three months, but the exhibit’s reopening date has yet to be determined.

Other exhibits are open to the public, but visitors should make sure to check the Smithsonian’s new hours and requirements adjusted for the coronavirus pandemic.

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