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2013 Panda Updates

December 20

Bao Bao is becoming a master at giant panda locomotion! She climbed up on the rockwork in Mei Xiang’s enclosure early Wednesday morning all by herself. She took a little tumble, but she was completely unhurt and Mei Xiang quickly came to her side. Undeterred by gravity, she soon was at it again and pulled herself back up on to the rockwork. Mei ended the climbing session shortly after her second successful attempt.

Wednesday keepers offered Bao Bao her first taste of juice. Since Bao Bao showed interest in the juice, they will likely use that as a reward during future training sessions with her.

Keepers have noticed that Mei Xiang may be ready to take Bao Bao outside. In the next week you may notice Mei Xiang and Bao Bao exploring different parts of the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat together – including Mei’s newly cub-proofed outdoor areas! But don’t rush to the Zoo to see the two of them quite yet. Bao Bao will not be visible to the public until January 18 (only FONZ members will be able to see her from January 11 to January 17). If Mei does choose to venture outside with Bao Bao, the panda team will close the area around the panda habitat to provide quiet for the bears. But panda cam viewers will still be able to see them on the cams.

In other panda news, the January issue of Smithsonian magazine features Bao Bao on the cover! The issue also has new stunning photos by Tim Flach of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. The story went online Wednesday. It provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life inside the panda house, and a look at the Zoo’s giant panda research and conservation efforts in China.

December 16

Bao Bao had a busy day Friday! She was very active and spent the entire day in one of Mei Xiang's large indoor enclosures. That was the first time she has spent an entire day outside of the den!

Keepers also weighed Bao Bao early Friday morning. She is now up to 13.2 pounds (6.26 kilos).

As Bao Bao's teeth are starting to come in, she also occasionally bites down on bamboo. But she's still nursing and won't start to sample bamboo for another few months.

The keepers are laying the groundwork for training with Bao Bao. They reward her for moving or looking toward them when they interact with her. Right now her reward is a tiny evergreen branch or a tiny piece of bamboo to play with, but when she gets older she will get small treats for choosing to participate.

December 6

It's been a big week for Bao Bao! She got her name on Sunday, thanks to the more than 120,000 votes cast. She now weighs a whopping 12.76 pounds! Keepers have noticed her putting bamboo in her mouth in an exploratory sort of way, though she's not eating yet.

Mei is beginning to take Bao Bao out of the den and into the large enclosure more frequently, even putting her up on the rockwork and allowing her to climb around on the lower level of the rockwork. The keepers have "baby-proofed" the panda enclosure by putting hay behind the rockwork to cushion any possible falls.

Like any human toddler, Bao Bao is still figuring out how to walk and move. The keepers noted her practicing walking quite a bit yesterday, and by this morning found her walking all over the place. It won't be long until she's a pro at all speeds and directions of panda locomotion!

Giant Panda Cub
Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

December 1

After 100 days and 123,039 votes, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo received her name today. The cub's name is: Bao Bao!

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, Ambassador Cui Tiankai from the People’s Republic of China and Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs revealed her name at a ceremony celebrating the cub’s first 100 days of life.

Bao Bao translates as "treasure" or "precious" in English. It was one of five Mandarin Chinese names that were offered for a public online vote from November 5 to November 22. The names were contributed by People’s Republic of China ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Gary Locke, and his family, giant panda keepers at the China Conservation and Research Center in Wolong, Sichuan, China, where the cub will live after she turns four years old, giant panda keepers at the National Zoo, and Friends of the National Zoo.

Bao Bao will make her public debut in January 2014.

Giant Panda Cub
Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

November 22

Today was another weigh-in day! The cub now weighs 10.8 pounds (4.9 kilos). And keepers have noticed that she is responding to the noises she hears. When they enter the den to take her for weights and measurements, she orients herself toward them. They also have been talking more when they are around her, which they hope will make her more familiar with their voices. So far they have just been referring to her as "cub" or "baby," but soon the cub will have a name!

Today is the last day to rock the vote for the cub's name! Add your vote to the more than 115,000 votes that have already been cast. The cub's name will be revealed at a ceremony on December 1, which will be open to the public.

Giant Panda Cub
Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

November 19

The panda cub is taking small steps! Over the weekend and yesterday cam watchers may have noticed that she has been able to get her hind legs underneath her and stand up. She hasn't gotten very far yet though, she's only takes a few steps before sitting back down and crawling. On Sunday she almost walked out of the den all by herself. She stood in the doorway of the den trying to get her hind legs underneath her and walk, but she tired herself out and took a nap in the doorway instead.

As the cub becomes increasing more mobile, Mei Xiang has started to take her out of the den for short forays into the indoor enclosures. On Saturday she took the cub out of the den and put her on the floor of the larger indoor enclosure while she got a drink.

Keepers weighed the cub quickly again this morning - and she now weighs 10.34 pounds (4.7 kilos).

Don't forget to cast your vote to name our giant panda cub! More than 99,000 people have voted so far! The poll is open until November 22. On December 1, when the cub is 100 days old, we will announce the winning name.

November 15

The panda cub was weighed and measured again this morning! She now weighs 9.68 pounds (4.4 kilos). She is still very round measuring 18.11 inches (46 centimeters) around her belly. But her nose is starting to lose its pink color and turn black like an adult panda nose. She is also crawling with a lot more control now. Mei Xiang hasn't ventured out of the den with her again, but she does periodically move the cub to the doorway of the den.

Don't forget to cast your vote to name our giant panda cub! More than 85,000 people have voted so far! The poll is open until November 22. On December 1, when the cub is 100 days old, we will announce the winning name.

November 8

Our panda cub is growing bigger and bigger! She now weighs a hefty 8.14 pounds, and her tail is starting to shrink relative to the size of her body. And keepers report that they are starting to see ridges where her teeth will erupt. The cub devotes a lot of energy to scooting and crawling around the den, and keepers predict that it won’t be much longer before she’s ready to take her first steps.

On November 3, the cub caught her first glimpse of the world outside her den. Mei brought the cub into her larger indoor exhibit area for about 30 seconds, before carrying the cub back inside. Since then, Mei has taken the cub on several more brief excursions into the outside world.

Although she won’t be ready for her public debut for a while, the cub is now old enough for keepers to start her training! Keepers are getting the cub accustomed to their presence and noise.

We're asking for your help to name our panda cub! Be sure to vote for your favorite name on Smithsonian.com. The voting page has exclusive photos of the cub.

November 5

Name the Panda CubThe Smithsonian’s National Zoo is asking for help to name its female giant panda cub. Panda fans can vote for their favorite name on Smithsonian.com beginning today, Election Day, at 2 p.m. EST until November 22. The winning name will be revealed at a ceremony Dec. 1, when the cub is 100 days old. It is tradition in China to celebrate when a baby turns 100 days old. Voters will have five Mandarin Chinese names to choose from:

  • Bao Bao (宝宝) (bow-BOW) — precious, treasure.
  • Ling Hua (玲花) (ling-HWA) — darling, delicate flower.
  • Long Yun (龙韵) (long-YOON) — long is the Chinese symbol of the dragon, yun means charming. Combined, this represents a sign of luck for panda cooperation between China and the U.S.
  • Mulan (木兰) (moo-LAHN) — a legendary young woman, a smart and brave Chinese warrior from the fifth century; it also means magnolia flower in Chinese.
  • Zhen Bao (珍宝) (jen-BAO) — treasure, valuable.

People’s Republic of China Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke and his family, giant panda keepers at the National Zoo, giant panda keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong and Friends of the National Zoo each submitted a name for the cub.
On the voting webpage (available in English and Mandarin), voters and avid panda fans alike can learn more about the cub and her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and giant panda research at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The page will also include exclusive never-before-seen photos of the cub.

Vote now to name the panda cub!


October 30

Panda Cub Oct 29
Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

This week’s giant panda update was written by giant panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

Mei Xiang is now venturing outside for breakfast, and is spending up to two hours away from the cub at a time. As the cub matures that time will increase, and eventually mother and cub will be comfortable spending many hours away from each other. That will also give us more time for training sessions with Mei and for checks on the cub, so cam watchers may notice that the cams may be focused on Mei when she’s away from the cub. We are using Mei’s time outside to do regular cub exams and weigh and measure the cub. Last week, we noticed that the cub is even sleeping through the exams! This makes sense given Mei’s attentive maternal care. She nurses the cub before she goes outside for breakfast, allowing the cub to rest back in the den during her departure. Mei Xiang even took that opportunity to take a nap herself Thursday, enjoying the cool fall air on her favorite resting spot on top of the grotto in her yard.

Keepers were able to weigh and measure the cub yesterday. She now weighs 7.7 pounds (3.5 kilos) and she’s 23 inches long (59 centimeters). Her right front paw measured in at 2.4 inches long (6 centimeters) and her hind paws at 3 inches (8 centimeters). Her eyes have opened more and are now almost fully open.

It has come to the keepers’ attention that some panda cam viewers have been concerned that the cub could get stuck between the bars in the den. The bars that are in the den are the same as the ones that were in the den for Mei’s first cub, Tai Shan, they are just positioned differently. To further alleviate any concern, we measured the bars Friday morning—they are raised 6.4 centimeters from the floor, and the space between the bars is 8.3 centimeters. Although the camera angle may be deceiving, the cub’s head is larger than the width of the bars, thus preventing her from getting stuck. Our cub’s health and well-being are our primary concern here, and we are happy that the panda camera viewers share our concern for our little one!

October 23



Photo by Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

The giant panda cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has gained almost another pound since Friday, Oct. 18, weighing in at 6.73 pounds (3.06 kilograms), and received her first vaccine at her veterinary exam this morning.

Veterinarians reported that the cub is very healthy, and despite receiving a vaccine she rested comfortably through much of the exam. She is 16.5 inches (42 centimeters) around her belly and 19.29 inches (49 centimeters) long.

The cub has started crawling and can often be seen testing her new motor skills in the den on the panda cams, sponsored in part by the Ford Motor Company Fund. Visitors to the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat may see Mei Xiang, outside in the mornings around 8 a.m. She has been leaving the den and the cub for increasingly longer periods to go outside and to eat. This morning she was outside for a little more than an hour.

Visitors can see Tian Tian in his outdoor habitat and on the panda cams. The Zoo will provide updates on Mei Xiang and the cub via Facebook, Twitter, and the Giant Panda Update e-newsletter.

October 17

The gates at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo will open to the public Friday, October 18! The live animal cams were turned off during the government shutdown, including the panda cams. The Zoo’s Information Technology staff began the process of bringing the live animal cams back online Thursday morning, starting with the panda cams. The 15 different camera systems required federal resources, primarily staff, to operate and were deemed non-essential during a shutdown.

With the return of the cams, giant panda fans can once again watch the Zoo’s eight week-old cub and her mother Mei Xiang. Since the panda cams went dark the cub has grown and passed several developmental milestones. She weighs five pounds (2.557 kilograms), up from 3.07 pounds (1.39 kilograms) at her veterinary exam September 26. She also has partially opened her eyes. Keepers noticed that her right eye had started to open October 4. By October 11, both her eyes had partially opened. Her ears are also fully open and she now reacts to the noises she hears in the panda house.

Mei Xiang is leaving the cub for longer periods of time to eat, drink, interact with keepers and venture outside for very short periods of time. She is eating all of her leaf-eater biscuits and produce that keepers offer her every day, and approximately 60 percent of her bamboo. Saturday, October 12, she chose to participate in a training session with keepers in her outdoor training area.

While her mother spends time in other parts of the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat the cub scoots around the den, though she does not get very far.

She will not be able to walk until she is about four months old, and has not left the den on her own yet. She is strong enough to push herself up on her front two legs and right herself if she is lying on her back.

We will resume providing updates, photos and videos of Mei Xiang and the cub via Facebook, Twitter, and our Giant Panda Bulletin.

Due to the popularity of the panda cams, sponsored in part by the Ford Motor Company Fund, viewers may experience some difficulty streaming the cams when they return. There is a limit on the number of connections they can accommodate, as there was prior to the shutdown. After 15 minutes, viewers will need to refresh the panda cam page if they want to continue to watch the cams. Smartphone users with the National Zoo App can enjoy uninterrupted live streaming via the app.

September 30

On Saturday, Mei came out of her den in the morning looking for food as soon as keepers arrived. That’s the first time she’s done that since the cub was born, which tells keepers that her appetite is returning to normal. Lately, she’s been waiting until they place bamboo in her enclosure before she comes out. On Sunday she left the den for more than 30 minutes.

Regarding the panda cam: If the federal government shuts down October 1, the Smithsonian's National Zoo will be closed to the public. In addition to all events being canceled and all gates into the Zoo being closed, none of our live animal cams—including the panda cam—will be broadcast. The cams require federal resources, primarily staff, to run and broadcast, and they were deemed not essential in the case of a shutdown.

All the animals will continue to be fed and cared for. A shutdown will not affect our commitment to the safety of our staff and standard of excellence in animal care.

For further updates and information, please check Facebook, Twitter, or our homepage.

September 26

The panda team was able to perform another full veterinary exam on the cub today. Mei Xiang is routinely coming out of her den in the mornings to eat bamboo and drink. This morning when she left her den, the panda team closed the door that connects the den to her adjacent enclosure and retrieved the cub.

The exam went very well and the cub has grown substantially since last week. She now weighs 3.07 pounds (1.395 kg), and she’s 11.4 inches (29 cm) around her belly. At her last exam, September 16, she weighed in at just under 2 pounds and measured 9.8 inches (25 cm) wide around her belly. Now, she is over 14 inches (36 cm) long with each of her paws 1.5 inches (4 cm) long. Veterinarians listened to her heart and lungs, which sound healthy.

The cub is very active and keepers said she is very wiggly and squirmy. She’s trying to support her own weight. Her eyes have not opened yet, and won’t for a few more weeks. After the exam was completed, the panda team returned the cub to the den. When Mei Xiang came back to the den she immediately picked the cub up and started grooming her.

September 26

Mei Xiang has started putting the cub down for longer periods of time! Over the weekend and this morning when the keepers entered her den to continue their den-training routine, Mei placed the cub on the ground and focused on the keepers the entire time. She drank all the diluted apple juice keepers offered her in exchange for participating in the training session – and even seemed to want more after she had finished it. Mei also feels comfortable leaving the cub several times each day to eat and drink in her adjacent indoor enclosure.

Thank you to Flickr user debbie.parente for uploading this screen grab to the #cubwatch page!

Mei and cub

September 20

Our panda cub is 4 weeks old today – and what a difference a few weeks makes! Keepers say that it looks like she has eye markings shaped like Mei Xiang’s and her back saddle is shaped like Tian Tian’s. And she is growing exponentially. One of the keepers at her veterinary exam on Monday exclaimed that she is nearly as round as she is long!

Mei’s appetite has come roaring back this week as well. Keeper, Nicole, said this morning “there are no bamboo leaves that are safe” in Mei’s enclosure. Mei left the cub for about 20 minutes this morning to eat. Since Monday she has started leaving the cub more frequently and for longer periods of time. The panda team plans to perform another veterinary exam on the cub next week, if they get the opportunity.

The cub’s eyes will probably not open for a few more weeks. Panda cubs’ eyes usually start to open when they are between 40 and 60 days old. She’ll also become more mobile soon. She can only partially roll over right now, meaning that if she turns herself on her back she needs Mei’s help to get back on her belly. But, keepers expect that to change soon enough, and when it does she’ll be able to turn herself over completely without any help.

Tian Tian is also doing well. Since the summer temperatures have faded he has been staying outside at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat until 2 p.m. most afternoons.

September 17

The giant panda cub born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Aug. 23 received her first veterinary exam late yesterday afternoon and was given a clean bill of health. Mei Xiang, who has spent much of the past three and a half weeks cradling her cub, put her down and left her den at 4:11 p.m. The panda team, which has been preparing for an opportunity to perform a full veterinary exam, seized the opportunity and retrieved the cub from the den while Mei Xiang ate bamboo and drank some water in the adjacent enclosure. The exam was completed by 4:31 p.m.

"It’s amazing to see how much she has grown in less than one month," said Brandie Smith, senior curator of mammals and giant pandas. "Mei Xiang continues to be a great mom, as she was with Tai Shan, and it shows."

Since her preliminary health check Aug. 25 the cub has more than doubled her weight. She now weighs slightly less than two pounds and has the signature black markings of a giant panda. Veterinarians also listened to her heart and lungs. Her heart rate was 130 beats per minute, and her respiratory rate was 42. From nose to tail she is 10.6 inches long and 9.8 inches wide around her belly. Her eyes have not opened yet.

After the exam was completed Mei Xiang returned to her den and immediately picked up her cub and began grooming her.

Panda cub

September 11

Mei Xiang and her cub are still doing well! Keepers and veterinarians expect that Mei will begin leaving her den for longer periods of time soon. When she does leave the den for longer periods of time keepers and veterinarians hope to be able to perform another health check on the cub. In the meantime, keepers are continuing to do short training sessions with Mei in her den, and offer her small snack-sized treats for participating.

During the past several days the panda cams have caught some precious moments of Mei and her cub that we’ve pulled together.Thank you to all the panda cam fans who have uploaded their screen grabs of Mei and the cub to the #cubwatch Flickr album.

September 9

Mei Xiang and the cub continue to do well.  Over the weekend, Mei left her den for a few minutes several times, once to get a drink of water. Keepers are starting to do some training with Mei Xiang in her den (as opposed to just feeding her) in an effort to facilitate our efforts to collect milk and the cub. Keepers were also able to snap a few photos!

On Sunday morning, Mei put down her cub in the den for about a minute.  The cub vocalized (grunting) while Mei honked at her.  Keepers recall Mei using similar vocalizations with Tai Shan.

Photo by Courtney Janney, Smithsonian's National Zoo.

September 4

Scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics confirmed that our giant panda cub is female! A paternity analysis showed that the Zoo’s panda Tian Tian is the cub’s father. Scientists also confirmed the second, stillborn cub Mei Xiang delivered on August 24 was a female and also sired by Tian Tian. The cubs were fraternal twins.

Zoo scientists used two tests to confirm the sex of both cubs. The first test was developed by scientists in China and analyzes a fragment of the zinc finger protein gene. The second test, also using a shorter fragment of the same zinc finger protein gene, was developed by SCBI scientists and veterinarians. They used the second test to verify the results of the initial test.

giant panda swab extract

For the paternity tests they compared genotype profiles of DNA samples from the cubs to profiles from Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and the San Diego Zoo’s giant panda Gao Gao. As a result of previous conservation research, SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics had blood samples from Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Gao Gao on hand. They compared a small sample of muscle tissue from the stillborn cub and a tiny sample of cheek cells from the cub born on August 23 to the adult pandas’ DNA samples for the tests. Veterinarians obtained the cheek cell sample with a swab during a preliminary health check on August 25.

“The genetics laboratory conducts conservation research and service for the Zoo and the entire Smithsonian, including sexing animals, determining paternity and disease testing,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “This was a great opportunity to assist our reproductive and panda biologist colleagues to assess their artificial insemination methods in pandas.”

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated twice on March 30 after natural breeding attempts with the Zoo’s male giant panda Tian Tian were unsuccessful. A team of Zoo scientists and veterinarians, including Tang Chunxiang, the assistant director and chief veterinarian of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, performed the artificial inseminations. During the first procedure she was artificially inseminated with a combination of fresh and frozen semen collected from Tian Tian. The frozen semen was from 2003. The second procedure was performed with frozen semen collected from Tian Tian in 2003 and frozen semen collected from Gao Gao in 2003.

“We had never artificially inseminated Mei Xiang with semen from two males before this past breeding season,” said Pierre Comizzoli, reproductive biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “If Gao Gao had been the father of one or both cubs, that would have been very interesting because we would have known that the second artificial insemination was the one that was successful.”

Tian Tian

September 4

This morning, Mei Xiang was very alert when the panda keepers walked into her den and looked eager for her morning drink. She drank 64 ounces of water right away. She did turn down all offers of food (a frozen bamboo shoot and sugar cane). She seems to be enjoying her “den service!”

cub cam screenshot

Thanks to Flickr user spiderxcat for snapping this screenshot and posting it to our
#cubwatch Flickr page!

September 3

Last night at 6:15 p.m., Mei Xiang left her den. She climbed up the rockwork mountain in her adjoining exhibit, urinated, and returned to the den at 6:18. It's normal for bears not to eat, drink, urinate, or defecate much in the early days of raising a cub. This morning, she drank a little diluted apple juice the panda team offered her, though she wasn't interested in bamboo. The panda team got an excellent close-up of the cub while Mei was out! It looks good, and is within the normal size for a cub its age.

cub cam screenshot

Thanks to Flickr user spiderxcat for snapping this screenshot and posting it to our
#cubwatch Flickr page!

September 2

Last night, Mei Xiang left her den at 10:37 p.m. to get a drink from the water in her enclosure for the first time since the cub was born. She drank for about two minutes before returning to the den and the cub. The panda team got a good look at the cub in the den and it looks great. You can see the beginnings of the black saddle on its back starting to show!

0016-09-01-2013-21-36

Thanks to Flickr user spiderxcat for snapping this screenshot and posting it to our
#cubwatch Flickr page!

September 1

The panda team offered Mei Xiang liquids and food this morning and evening. She was not interested in eating or drinking and remains very focused on her cub. She is an excellent mother. We get better visuals on the cub every day. It continues to look good, and today we got several good looks at its eye and ear spots!

cub cam screenshot

Thanks to Flickr user Debbie Parente for snapping this screenshot and posting it to our
#cubwatch Flickr page!

August 31

This morning, the panda team offered Mei Xiang apple water, a bamboo smoothie, some bamboo, sugar cane and a pear. She was not interested in eating or drinking anything. Keepers are not worried about her lack of appetite: When she had Tai Shan, she did not eat anything until he was 16 days old, and today the cub is only 8 days old. This is expected behavior for a bear.

Although the keepers did not get a good look at the cub while they were in the den this morning, they continue to hear good vocalizations and get good visuals over the monitors.

Thanks to Flickr user machigodo for snapping this screenshot and posting it to our
#cubwatch Flickr page!

August 30

Keepers went into Mei Xiang’s den again this morning to offer her some food and drink. She drank some water sweetened with a little apple juice, which she has done for the past several days. Food still doesn’t appeal to her much, which is normal for a bear that recently gave birth. She didn’t touch the pear, sweet potato, bamboo, and water keepers offered her.

In 2005 Mei did not eat until 16 days after she gave birth to Tai Shan, but her appetite came back quickly after she ate that first little bit of bamboo. It’s not uncommon for bears in the wild to go without food for long periods after they have a cub. Although Mei isn’t showing much interest in food, keepers give her fresh bamboo leaves in her den that she can eat if she chooses. It’s hard to see them on the panda cams because they blend in with her nest.

Mei continues to be an excellent mother and she is producing milk. And one of our veterinarians that got a good look at the cub this morning said it looks, “strong, active, full and pink.”

The panda team will continue to offer Mei food and drink twice a day in her den until she feels comfortable enough to leave it for short periods of time to eat, drink, urinate and defecate.

If you catch a good glimpse of the cub on the panda cams, share it with us! You can upload your screen shots on our #cubwatch Flickr page!

panda cam screen shot

Screen shot courtesy of Flickr user mflinner

August 29

In the early morning hours, Mei Xiang gently placed her cub on the floor of her den. Vigilant panda cam observers were watching at 3:37 a.m., and we’re delighted to share the video! You’ll see the tiny cub has a round belly which indicates to the panda team that it is nursing well. Also, the cub has a great set of lungs. There is a lot of squawking until Mei carefully picks the cub up again and cradles it.

Mei is much more aware of the keepers when they enter her den space to offer her food. Today Mei drank 56 ounces, which is a good sign that she is doing well. Keepers and veterinarians continue to monitor the mother and cub visually and, so as not to upset Mei or endanger the staff, will allow Mei Xiang's behaviors to direct how they access the cub. Inside the den, they are very close to the bears and all visual and audible indications tell us that both are doing well.

We invite you to keep watching them on the panda cam but due to the volume of viewers, we have set the viewing period to 15 minutes. If you’d like to watch for a longer amount of time, you simply refresh the panda cam or you can watch for an unlimited amount of time on the Zoo’s App. Keep watching!

August 28

This morning keepers entered Mei Xiang’s den to offer her food and water. They came with some of her favorite treats—diluted apple juice, a sweet potato and a pear. She licked the sweet potato but didn’t show much interest in it or the pear. Although Mei wasn’t very hungry, she was thirsty and she drank some diluted apple juice. Female giant pandas usually do not eat or drink much in the weeks after they give birth.

The entire time Mei was drinking she didn’t put the cub down, so keepers didn’t get a very close look at the cub. But they could hear it squawking and it sounded healthy. They also got several good looks at the cub on the web cams this afternoon.

Mei and cub

August 27

This morning, the panda team attempted to get the cub for a second veterinary exam. Mei Xiang was more alert and more aware of the keepers’ presence today, especially compared with Sunday when she seemed focused on the cub to the exclusion of everything else around her. As opposed to Sunday, today she positioned her body and her cub so that panda keepers couldn’t reach the cub. When they attempted to distract her and retrieve the cub, she persistently moved out of reach. It’s clear that she was holding tight to the cub and did not want to give it up. The keepers stopped the attempt so as not to upset her. The panda team continues to monitor Mei and the cub constantly. Regular exams help us ensure the cub’s continued health and growth.

Tian Tian's 16th Birthday Celebration

In other giant panda news, today is Tian Tian’s 16th birthday! In celebration, he received a fruitsicle cake of sweet potatoes, carrots, pears, apples, and a little juice.

August 25

This morning, the panda team was able to give the cub its first neonatal exam. The cub is robust, fully formed, and is a bright, healthy shade of pink. It weighs 137 grams, which is about 4.8 ounces. Its heart rate is steady, and vets were able to hear breathing sounds from both lungs. It's belly was nice and full, its mouth was normal, and it was obvious that the cub is both nursing and digesting. All signs are that we have a very healthy, active, vibrant cub.

We won't know the cub's sex or its paternity for two or three weeks.

Giant Panda Cub Smithsonian's National Zoo

Photo by Courtney Janney, NZP

August 24

At 7:29 p.m. this evening, Mei Xiang gave birth to a second, stillborn cub. Keepers watching Mei on the panda cam saw her groom it for 17 minutes. When she stopped grooming, it fell from Mei’s body onto the floor of the den. It lay motionless and made no sound. Throughout, staff could see the first cub and hear it squealing. Mei never set it down. Staff retrieved the motionless cub with a grabbing device. It was immediately evident that the cub had developmental abnormalities and wasn’t fully formed. It was never alive. A necropsy is underway. Mei's first cub continues to do well.

August 23

Panda Cub Birth

Giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo 5:32 p.m. The panda team heard the cub vocalize and glimpsed the cub for the first time briefly immediately after the birth. Mei Xiang picked the cub up immediately and began cradling and caring for it.

Behavior watchers have been monitoring her 24 hours a day since Aug. 7 via the panda cams. The panda team began preparing for a birth when they saw her water break around 3:36 p.m. and she began having contractions. Mei Xiang started spending extended amounts of time body licking and cradling her toys Aug. 11, all signs that she could give birth.

For the first time this year scientists used another test developed by the Memphis Zoo which analyzed Mei Xiang’s levels of prostaglandin metabolite (a fatty acid) to narrow the window when she would give birth or experience a pseudopregnancy. Scientists at the Memphis Zoo performed the analysis and determined that if Mei Xiang were pregnant she would likely give birth during the last week of August. If she were not, her pseudopregnancy would have likely ended in early September.

“I’m glued to the new panda cams and thrilled to hear the squeals, which appear healthy, of our newborn cub,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “Our expansive panda team has worked tirelessly analyzing hormones and behavior since March, and as a result of their expertise and our collaboration with scientists from around the world we are celebrating this birth.”

Keepers and veterinarians will perform a preliminary health exam on the cub within the next 48 hours. Li Guo, lead giant panda keeper at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, is at the National Zoo supporting the giant panda keepers. Li and the Zoo’s panda team will perform health checks every few days during the next week. The panda cams will be briefly turned off when the team performs the health checks.

National Zoo scientists detected a secondary rise in Mei Xiang’s urinary progesterone July 10. The rise indicated that she would either have a cub or experience the end of a pseudopregnancy within 40 to 55 days. In the weeks since, keepers and veterinarians have monitored Mei Xiang closely. She has exhibited behavior consistent with a pregnancy or pseudopregnancy since the end of July. Her appetite has been steadily decreasing, and during the past few weeks she has spent significantly more time in her den. Veterinarians had been attempting regular ultrasounds to monitor changes in her reproductive tract and look for evidence of a fetus since late June, but Mei Xiang chose to stop participating in them several weeks ago. The only definitive way to determine if a female is pregnant before she gives birth to a cub is to detect a fetus on an ultrasound. Mei Xiang’s last ultrasound was August 5, during which veterinarians saw no evidence of a fetus.

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated twice March 30 after natural breeding attempts with the Zoo’s male giant panda, Tian Tian, were unsuccessful. A team of Zoo scientists and veterinarians, including Tang Chunxiang, the assistant director and chief veterinarian of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, performed the artificial inseminations. During the first procedure she was artificially inseminated with a combination of fresh semen collected from Tian Tian and frozen semen collected from Tian Tian in 2003. The second procedure was performed with frozen semen collected from Tian Tian in 2003 and frozen semen collected from the San Diego Zoo’s male giant panda, Gao Gao, in 2003. National Zoo scientists will perform a paternity analysis in the coming weeks to determine which male sired the cub. This is Mei Xiang’s third cub born as the result of an artificial insemination.

The panda team expects Mei Xiang to spend almost all of her time in her den for the next two weeks with her newborn cub. The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat has been closed to the public since August 2, and will remain closed until further notice to provide quiet for Mei Xiang and her cub. Both will be visible on the panda cam. Visitors can see Tian Tian in his outdoor habitat and on the panda cam.

Mei Xiang gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, July 9, 2005. Tai Shan was born as a result of artificial insemination and now lives at the Panda Base in BiFengxia in Ya’an, China. Mei Xiang gave birth to her second cub born as the result of an artificial insemination September 16, 2012. Six days after her birth, the giant panda cub died from liver damage caused by underdeveloped lungs.

August 15

The panda team at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat has officially started #cubwatch—which is normal for this point in the breeding season. Volunteer behavior watchers have been monitoring Mei Xiang via the panda cams 24-hours-a-day since August 7. Keepers say that Mei's behavior is still very lethargic. She is spending more time in her den, sleeping and shredding bamboo for her nest, and eating less. She has also occasionally been cradling and grooming her kong toy and boomer ball while in her den. Our veterinarians are still attempting daily ultrasounds when Mei is out of her den, but she has been choosing not to participate. All of these behavioral changes are consistent with a pseudopregnancy or pregnancy, and are behaviors that we have seen every year during this time.

On the other side of the Panda Habitat, Tian Tian has been enjoying the mild weather. Since Mei has not shown any interest in going outside, keepers have been letting Tian explore his yard and her yard.

Mei Xiang

August 6

As we continue to watch Mei Xiang in hopes of a new addition to the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, we have noticed some behavioral changes in our female giant panda. In the past few days Mei has become much less interested in interacting with her keepers, and she continues to be very sensitive to noise. She chooses to spend most of her time inside sleeping, and has rarely gone outside in the past few days. These behaviors are normal and even expected as we come to the end of a pregnancy or pseudopregancny.

We are noticing other behaviors that Mei exhibits typical behaviors too. She briefly cradled one of her toys. She is less interested in food, and as a result her bamboo intake has significantly decreased. Mei usually finds the produce and biscuits that keepers give her as a delicious snack, but now she is choosing not to finish them.

What Mei is interested in, however, is her nest. Mei has been building her nest since early July and it continues to grow. This year we are controlling the size of her nest by offering her small stalks of bamboo. By giving her smaller pieces the veterinarians and keepers will have a better view of her nest, making it even easier to monitor her behavior — and the behavior of a potential cub. You can watch Mei make progress on her nest via the panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Mei Xiang

July 26

Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo have confirmed a secondary rise in urinary progesterone in Mei Xiang. The rise indicates that she will experience the end of a pseudopregnancy or give birth to a cub in 40 to 55 days. Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated twice March 30 after natural breeding attempts with the Zoo’s male panda, Tian Tian, were unsuccessful.

During the first procedure she was artificially inseminated with fresh as well as frozen sperm collected from Tian Tian in 2003. During the second procedure she was artificially inseminated with frozen sperm collected from Tian Tian in 2003 and frozen sperm from the San Diego Zoo’s male giant panda, Gao Gao. Tang Chunxiang, chief veterinarian of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, performed the artificial inseminations alongside a team of Zoo scientists, veterinarians and keepers.

Since the artificial inseminations the Zoo’s panda team has monitored Mei Xiang closely. Zoo scientists will continue to monitor her hormone levels through daily hormone analyses. Veterinarians are conducting ultrasounds regularly as Mei Xiang chooses to participate in them, to monitor changes in her reproductive tract and evaluate for evidence of a fetus. Giant panda fetuses do not start developing until the final weeks of gestation, making it difficult to definitively determine if there is a pregnancy. It may be too early to detect a fetus.

Keepers are also monitoring Mei Xiang’s behavior closely. She has begun nest building which is consistent with a rise in urinary progesterone. The area of the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat closest to her den will close any day to provide quiet for Mei Xiang, who shows extra sensitivity to noise during the final weeks of a pseudopregnancy or pregnancy. Panda fans can watch Mei Xiang on the upgraded panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund. The cams in Mei Xiang’s den, where she will be spending much of her time over the next month, have also been replaced with high-definition cameras. Visitors to the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat will see Tian Tian in his yard and inside the panda house as usual and Mei Xiang when she chooses to go into her outdoor exhibit.

July 22

Giant panda fans can tune into the panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo once again. The cams went dark for upgrades May 30 but will begin streaming live uninterrupted video today at noon.

The panda cam system upgrades were designed to maximize the viewer experience. Cam watchers can now stream live video of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on any computer, tablet or mobile device without having to refresh the web page. Mei Xiang’s den cameras have also been upgraded to high-definition cameras. Panda fans the world-over can watch her more clearly than ever before as she builds her nest.

The Zoo’s panda team conducts behavior research using the panda cams, and remotely watch both bears. They will monitor Mei’s behavior especially closely after it has detected a secondary rise in her urinary progesterone. That rise will indicate the end of the breeding season is near, and she will experience a pseudopregnancy or give birth within 40 to 50 days. During that time she will spend increasingly more time in her den, and the panda cams will be the primary way for the panda team and panda fans alike to watch her.

Veterinarians are conducting ultrasounds regularly as Mei Xiang chooses to participate in them, to monitor changes in her reproductive tract and evaluate for evidence of a fetus. Giant panda fetuses do not start developing until the final weeks of gestation, making it difficult to definitively determine if there is a pregnancy. It is still too early to detect a fetus. You can watch a video of her ultraound on July 3 above!

Visitors to the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat will see the renovated panda cam station with new larger flat screen monitors in addition to the pandas. Both pandas are on exhibit as usual today. Mei Xiang will receive a special panda-friendly frozen fruit cake today at 1:30 p.m. to celebrate her 15th birthday. Tian will turn 16 years old next month.

July 9

We know many of you miss watching Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on our panda cams. We want you to know we're working hard to get them up and running! As with many technical projects, we've hit some unanticipated delays.

Primarily, we're having issues with the new consoles and getting the audio system to work properly. We're waiting for a software patch from the manufacturer, which should solve the problem.

We have been testing the new panda web cam page internally and are still making changes to maximize the compatibility with the many computers and mobile devices that our web visitors use. We have run into several delays on the project with software bugs, network switch availability, and limited staff resources. We are hoping to have the cams live within the next few weeks. We're doing our best to hurry, and thank you for your patience!

While the upgrades to the panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, are underway, everything at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat has been business as usual.

As breeding season stretches into July, we are still waiting to find out if Mei Xiang is pregnant or pseudopregnant. All of the hormone and behavior data we are collecting clearly indicate that she is still in her primary hormone phase. She is showing normal behaviors and her hormones have not begun to rise for the second time this year (the first was when we performed two artificial inseminations in March).

When her hormones do rise, it means we will only have about 40 to 50 days until we find out if Mei is pregnant or not. Mei’s behavior will change when her hormones begin to rise. Primarily she will build a nest when she enters her secondary hormone phase. She pulls stalks of bamboo and mulberry branches into her den when she is nest-building. However, she hasn’t done that yet. Sometimes she will shred bamboo in her den —a normal behavior —but then defecate in the area — a clear sign that she is not nesting yet.

Although it’s still too early to tell if Mei Xiang is pregnant or pseudopregnant, our veterinarians are performing two ultrasounds on Mei Xiang each week. That helps them track any changes in Mei’s uterus.

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang have both transitioned to their summer eating habits. Both pandas prefer to eat bamboo leaves instead of the stalk now.

Panda Cams

Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

June 10

If you stop by the red panda habitat on Asia Trail, you may notice something new: TWO red pandas! Shama has been joined by a new male red panda, Rusty. Her previous mate Tate left last fall to be paired for breeding with a red panda at the Erie Zoo.

Rusty

Rusty comes to us from the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska. He turns one year old in July, and the Species Survival Plan has paired him with Shama for breeding. (Red panda breeding season takes place between January and March each year.)

After a 30-day quarantine period, keepers released him into the red panda exhibit on Asia Trail on early last week. The introduction between Rusty and Shama went smoothly, just as keepers expected. Rusty approached Shama curiously and Shama postured so Rusty would know she was in charge. Other than short interactions the pair remained separate for most of that first day.

On the second day keepers saw the pair sharing space and even spied Shama grooming Rusty—a sign that this duo is doing well already.

You can see Rusty and Shama every day in the red panda yard on Asia Trail, next to the Panda House. If you don’t see them in the yard, they may be soaking up a few minutes of cool air conditioning in their off-exhibit area.

You’ll be able to recognize Rusty by the blond coloration on his hips and tail!

Rusty and Shama

Rusty (left) and Shama

June 7

This week’s giant panda update, written by keeper Marty Dearie, details how he and other keepers work with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on training behaviors behind-the-scenes at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat.

How do you draw a blood sample from a giant panda? If the panda is Mei Xiang or Tian Tian keepers and veterinarians just ask. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian participate in a training program that helps us take care of them. Training allows keepers to ask the bear to do a certain behavior, such as “stand up.” When the bear stands up we reward him or her with a treat. Some of their favorite treats are honey diluted in water or a piece of fruit.

The behaviors that we ask the bears to do during training help us during veterinary exams. For many years now both bears have been trained for voluntary blood draws. When we need to get a blood sample from Mei or Tian we will do that in the training chute. They will present their forearms when we ask and get a reward. The veterinarians are then able to draw blood from the bears, who will continue to receive rewards for holding the position for the duration of the blood draw. It is an amazing feat to be able to draw blood from an awake bear, and it requires a lot of trust between a keeper and a panda.

Training has also helped us monitor Mei Xiang at the end of past breeding seasons. She willingly participates in abdominal ultrasounds for our veterinarians. We use ultrasounds in addition to behavioral and hormonal monitoring to try and determine if Mei Xiang is pregnant or pseudopregnant. Just like her other training sessions, Mei gets honey water or fruit for participating in ultrasounds.

We started working with Mei on a new training behavior recently. We would like to be able to collect milk from her because there is not much data out there on the nutritional composition of giant panda milk. If Mei Xiang allows us to collect milk from her we could learn much more.

While these husbandry goals are the main reason we train the pandas, it is not the only reason. Training also provides the animals with a chance to use their brains. When we challenge them to learn a behavior we are engaging part of the brain that may not otherwise be used during a normal day.

May 17

Mei Xiang during a training session.

Maintaining the genetic diversity of giant pandas living in human care is a science–an exact science. SCBI scientist Jonathan Ballou determines how well-represented an individual panda’s genes are in the captive population and makes breeding recommendations. In this panda update he explains how he does it.

Before scientists can determine whose genes are well-represented and whose genes are underrepresented, they have to know how many pandas there are. The giant panda studbook contains the genealogy of all 341 pandas living in human care. It is updated with the latest births, deaths, and moves of every giant panda. The pandas that are too old or unhealthy to breed are identified and removed from any genetic analysis. Two years ago, 30 pandas were identified as unfit for breeding. That left the genetic population at 303 bears.

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo–and at other zoos where there are only two pandas–the female can only breed with one male. In China, where there are many pandas living in the same facility, a female can breed with several males, or be artificially inseminated with sperm from several males. In cases where the paternity of a panda cub may not be known, we make assumptions about paternity. Although molecular genetic paternity testing is available, it usually takes a while and cannot always confirm who the father is. In 2011, there were about 60 pandas with uncertain paternity. But we have found a way to compensate for that.

The software we now use allows us to give probabilities of certain males being the father of the cub. For example if a female was artificially inseminated with sperm from male A and male B, we know that there is a 50 percent chance the father is A, and a 50 percent chance it is B. Our genetic calculations can then credit both A and B, but they only get one-half credit each.

After we have established the probability of paternity, we run the program to calculate the mean kinship values. The mean kinship of an individual is the average kinship (a measure of genetic relatedness) between him/herself and all the pandas in the genetic population. Pandas with lots of relatives have high mean kinship values. They are not considered as genetically valuable because their genes have copies in their relatives. They are not genetically unique.

Based on mean kinship for each male-female pair in the population, we also calculate something called the Mate Suitability Index. The Mate Suitability Index is a numerical ranking from one to six. The ranking reflects how offspring from that pair would affect the overall genetics of the population. Ranks of 1, 2 and 3 indicate that the genetics of the offspring benefit the population, with one being the best. Ranks of 4, 5 and 6 mean that the genetics of the offspring are detrimental to the population. When we say that the genetics of the offspring are detrimental, we mean that they may be inbred higher than the average level of inbreeding in the population, or their genes may be overrepresented.

Tables of the MSI values for each potential pair are distributed to the institutions holding the pandas. Based on the curator’s knowledge of the age, behavior, health of the pandas, and their MSI ranking the institutions then select which males to be bred with which females. They usually pick several different males for each female so they have options come breeding time.

April 30

We have some exciting news for all of our panda cam watchers! The panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, are going to be gradually ugraded. But in order to make the changes the cams will be turned off for a few weeks. The cams will most likely go dark around at the end of May and come back online in mid-June. We will finish the upgrades before Mei Xiang begins to build her nest and den up in preparation for the end of breeding season.

Soon the panda cams will be compatible with all iPad, tablet and smartphone devices. We also hope to do away with the 15-minute time limit on the cams, and offer an unlimited video stream. After we have finished these upgrades, there is even a possibility of upgrading to HD cameras in the dens!

We will provide updates on the progress of the upgrades through Facebook and Twitter.

A little over a week ago we were very saddened to learn of the severe earthquake in China. We are happy and relieved to confirm that our colleagues at the Bifengxia panda reserve and the giant pandas in their care are all safe, including Tai Shan the male offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian born in 2005.

Giant Panda

Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo.

April 17

Both Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are returning to their normal routines, following the breeding season. Occasionally, we are still seeing some scent-marking or some restlessness, but their appetites have returned, and both are spending their days exploring their yards independently, with little interest in what the other is doing. While giant pandas live in proximity to each other in the wild, they rarely interact socially aside from breeding season. They communicate to each other via scent-marks along trees and large rocks, indicating their identity and reproductive status to other giant pandas in the area.

Sometime in June, we will expect to see Mei Xiang starting to den up in preparation for the birth of a cub or the end of a pseudopregnancy. Since giant pandas experience delayed implantation, their gestation can be anywhere from three to six months. We will continue to monitor Mei’s behavior and hormones, watching anxiously for her hormones to enter their secondary rise. This will alert us that we only have a month or two to wait until we know whether or not all of our efforts have resulted in a healthy giant panda cub.

Giant Panda

Photo: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

April 9

This week’s Giant Panda Update is from Mike Maslanka, head of the Department of Nutrition Science at the Zoo.

It’s 6:15 a.m. It’s dark and cold outside. Many folks around D.C. are still arguing with the snooze button. But in the morning darkness, the garage door of the Commissary at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo slowly opens and a truck full of bamboo rolls out for the early morning bamboo delivery. This scene is repeated 365 days a year.

The Department of Nutrition Science at the National Zoo is responsible for providing diets for every animal living at the Zoo every day – and that of course includes our two giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. It sounds simple enough – cut some bamboo and deliver it to the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat – but the process is actually a bit more complicated.

Even though pandas also get a small amount of produce and a biscuit, the majority of their diet is bamboo, and the need for bamboo never stops. Until about two weeks or so ago, the pandas were offered a little over 100 pounds of bamboo each day. We don’t know how many different species of bamboo giant pandas eat in the wild, but we have found that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have eaten five or six species well. Satisfying giant appetites like that takes much more bamboo than we grow at the Zoo or the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. We harvest bamboo from nearly 20 different sites around the Washington, D.C. area. The harvest locations range from historic sites (those we’ve used for 20 years or more) to more recent finds (locations we have found in the last five years). All together our bamboo stands encompass probably 14 to 15 hectares (which is between 35 and 37 acres).

All of the bamboo we feed to all of our animals has to meet stringent animal care standards. Prior to harvesting, we sample each stand of bamboo to ensure it is safe. We examine not only nutrients, but also potential contaminants that could be on or in the bamboo. The location of the bamboo stand is also important when determining if the bamboo growing on it is safe for our animals. We take into consideration if there is any pollution in areas around the bamboo stand, and we have to make sure the stand is safe to work in and around. Since the pandas and many of our other animals need bamboo every day, we also don’t want to harvest an entire stand at once. So, we typically don’t harvest from stands smaller than a full acre.

We want to have stands to harvest from for many years to come. We can’t harvest too much from a single stand without having negative impacts on stand health and regrowth, so we rotate between all of our stands. The support that we receive from the community helps us care for and keep our pandas healthy.

Tian TianZoo

Photo: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National

April 1

Reproductive scientists and veterinarians from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo alongside Tang Chunxiang, the assistant director and chief veterinarian of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong performed a second artificial insemination on giant panda Mei Xiang Saturday, March 30, around 6 p.m.

During the first artificial insemination scientists used a combination of fresh and frozen semen from Tian Tian. For the second procedure, Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated with frozen semen from two different males.

Scientists used thawed semen collected from the San Diego Zoo’s male giant panda, Gao Gao, in 2003. They then used thawed semen collected from Tian Tian in 2003. Mei Xiang was inseminated with semen from Gao Gao in 2007, but she did not give birth to a cub.

A wild-born male giant panda, Gao Gao arrived at the San Diego Zoo on Jan. 15, 2003, from the People’s Republic of China as part of the Zoo’s research loan. He was born in China’s Baoxing County but was kept in the Fengtongzhai Rescue Center for most of his early life after reintroduction efforts failed to keep him out of areas inhabited by humans. He was transferred to the Wolong Nature Reserve prior to his journey to the San Diego Zoo. Gao Gao had shown interest in female pandas in Wolong; however, he had not fathered any offspring until his arrival in San Diego. He is the sire of five cubs born to Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo: Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi and Xiao Liwu.

Both Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have recovered from the procedures over the weekend and are doing well. The Zoo will run a paternity analysis if a cub is born. The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat reopened to the public yesterday, March 31, and visitors can see both Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.

March 30

Spring has sprung and the giant pandas are breeding again at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Scientists detected a rise in urinary estrogens March 26, in its female giant panda Mei Xiang (may-SHONG). This rise and her behaviors indicated that Mei Xiang was in estrus and ready to breed. A team of Zoo scientists and veterinarians, including Tang Chunxiang, the assistant director and chief veterinarian of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, performed an artificial insemination (AI) earlier this morning after keepers determined no competent breeding between Mei Xiang and the Zoo’s male giant panda Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN) had occurred overnight.

"We are hopeful that our breeding efforts will be successful this year, and we’re encouraged by all the behaviors and hormonal data we’ve seen so far," said Dave Wildt, head of the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "We have an extremely small window of opportunity to perform the procedures, which is why we monitor behavior and hormones so closely."

Mei Xiang was put under general anesthesia for the artificial insemination and will likely undergo a second procedure later today. During the artificial insemination, the team of scientists and veterinarians used a combination of fresh semen collected from Tian Tian early this morning and frozen semen collected from Tian Tian in 2003.

The Zoo will provide further updates through its Facebook page and Twitter using the hashtag #PandaAI.

The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, which has been closed since March 26, will reopen tomorrow, March 31. Visitors to the Zoo today should not expect to see the pandas. In the meantime panda fans can watch Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on the panda cam, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, except during an artificial insemination.

The Zoo’s plans for breeding Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were developed in accordance with the Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, which lasts until 2015. Tang traveled to the Zoo to assist with breeding as part of the agreement. He performed two artificial inseminations on Mei Xiang alongside a team from the Zoo in 2011.

Zoo scientists will monitor Mei Xiang’s hormone levels in the coming months and conduct ultrasounds to determine if she is pregnant. A pregnancy lasts between 95 and 160 days. Female giant pandas experience delayed implantation, during which the embryo does not implant in the uterine wall until a few weeks before birth and a fetus does not start to develop until the final weeks of gestation. It is impossible to determine from behaviors and hormone analyses alone if a female is pregnant or experiencing a false pregnancy (pseudopregnancy).

The Zoo received approval for its breeding plans from the China Wildlife and Conservation Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which monitors giant panda research programs in the United States.

March 27

Breeding season has arrived! Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are exhibiting behaviors indicating that they are ready to breed; and Mei Xiang's hormones have begun to rise. That rise indicates that she is in estrus. Our giant panda breeding team — including Zoo keepers, reproductive scientists, veterinarians and Chinese colleagues — is in place and waiting. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will have an opportunity to breed naturally, but if no competent breeding is observed then the team will perform one or more artificial inseminations. Zoo scientists are monitoring Mei Xiang's behaviors and hormones, and will identify the best time to perform an artificial insemination in the coming days.

The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat will be closed until Mei Xiang is no longer in estrus, but visitors ocassionally may be able to see one or both bears in their yards from Asia Trail. In the meantime the best place to watch Mei and Tian is on the panda cam, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund. However, the cam will be turned off if the panda team is performing an artificial insemination. We will provide updates on breeding efforts on the Zoo's Facebook page and its Twitter page using the hashtag #PandaAI.

Mei Xiang

Photo: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo .

March 22

This week's giant panda news features a behavior update from keeper, Nicole MacCorkle.

Both Mei’s and Tian’s appetites have decreased a bit this week. Tian is bleating more at Mei (a high pitched contact call), and she is vocalizing back, although her vocalizations are anything but friendly. She answers back with a low pitched moan, indicating that she’s not quite ready for breeding, even though things are proceeding in that direction. In the coming days, we expect to see Mei’s behavior shift, with her bleating at not only Tian Tian, but also at keepers, indicating that estrus is imminent. In the meantime, we are collecting daily urine samples and vaginal cytology slides, and carefully monitoring both Mei’s and Tian’s behaviors.

Mei and Tian have been spending more time interacting with each other at the mesh that separates their yards lately. Unfortunately, they have been choosing to do that near the back of the yards which has made it difficult to see them when they are outside at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. Even if they may be difficult to see in the yards, panda fans can watch Mei and Tian on the panda cam, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, anywhere!

Giant pandas at mesh

Photo: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

March 15

We are continuing to monitor Mei Xiang’s hormone levels very closely, but her hormones are still at baseline. Once Mei Xiang’s hormones begin to rise we will know that she has entered estrus. Though she is still in the pre-estrus phase, Mei has started showing increased activity and we have noticed some physiological changes. Mei is not the only one getting a little restless. Tian Tian is showing some rutting behaviors; he is power-walking around his exhibit. All the signs indicate that we are getting closer to the first phase of breeding season.

Giant Panda, Photo courtesy of Janice Sveda

Photo courtesy of Janice Sveda.

March 8

Dr. Pierre Comizzoli is a reproductive cryobiologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. In this giant panda update he explains how the Zoo stores semen for endagered wildlife, which can be used for procedures like an artificial insemination.

The team of people at the Zoo who study and research giant panda reproduction includes keepers, veterinarians and scientists. I am one of the scientists on that team, specifically a reproductive cryobiologist. That means that I am a specialist in the preservation of sperm cells, eggs and gonadal tissues of endangered species at freezing temperatures.

By freezing semen samples of endangered species we preserve them for long periods of time and can suspend the life of sperm for decades. At the Zoo we store frozen semen of giant pandas and other species in the sperm bank. It is critical to create frozen sperm banks because the genes from deceased individuals can be used to produce offspring long after their death. This is really important for the sustainability of small populations and it is integrated with other conservation efforts. When we need the frozen sperm cells, we thaw them and then they can be used for assisted reproduction (like an artificial insemination). The Zoo’s sperm bank contains more than 2,000 semen samples from more than 100 species. Sixty of those samples are giant panda semen from five males.

Our two pandas at the Zoo, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, have never successfully bred on their own. For a critically endangered species like the giant panda – that presents a challenge for conservation efforts, which is why we perform artificial inseminations on Mei Xiang when natural breeding does not occur.

I have been involved with performing giant panda artificial inseminations at the Zoo every year since 2004 – except in 2006 when Mei Xiang was nursing Tai Shan. For some artificial inseminations we have used frozen sperm, which is stored in the Zoo’s sperm bank.

Giant Panda

Photo courtesy of Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National zoo

We only freeze semen from endangered species that is high-quality. The process for freezing samples is very specific to ensure that the samples are the highest quality possible. First, the semen has to be mixed with a solution that prevents pH variations, otherwise those variations would kill the small and fragile cells. Then, an ‘anti-freeze’ agent (glycerol) is added to the diluted semen to protect the cells before being exposed to decreasing temperatures. Ideally the semen is first cooled to 4°C, which is the temperature of a refrigerator, in a couple of hours. The cold semen suspension is then loaded in small plastic straws that hold less than 1/4mL of semen. All of the straws hold the same concentration of semen. Finally, the straws are exposed for several minutes to liquid nitrogen vapors at a temperature of about -100°C, before being plunged in the liquid nitrogen (-196°C).

We don’t always have to use frozen sperm for giant panda artificial inseminations. We can use fresh samples, but only high-quality fresh semen. We know if fresh semen is high-quality based on how many moving spermatozoa are in the sample. After we collect a fresh semen sample, it has to be either used for an insemination or frozen immediately otherwise the sperm cells start to die (they stop moving). The forward motility of the sperm cells (which we can see using a microscope) is the best indicator of their quality and viability.

February 27

In addition to the research Zoo scientists and their Chinese colleagues conduct on giant pandas, they also study red pandas. In this update Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer, lead veterinarian at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Department of Conservation Medicine, writes about the research Zoo scientists are currently doing with red pandas.

In November the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute launched the largest health and reproductive study ever on the red panda. This study is evaluating the largest red panda population housed under human care at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Panda Base) in Chengdu, China. A significant number of the red pandas at the Panda Base are involved in the study. SCBI’s Department of Conservation Medicine is working with experts at the Panda Base and George Mason University to conduct a biomedical survey of red pandas.

Red Panda

Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo

The red panda is the only member of the family Aluridae making it a unique species unlike any other carnivore on the planet. Although a very different species than the similarly named giant panda, red pandas share their habitat with the giant panda. SCBI is interested in evaluating diseases of special species that share habitat with the giant panda, specifically in the Sichuan region of China, as part of a broader project initiated by the SCBI’s Department of Conservation Medicine called the Giant Panda Comparative Medicine and Disease Susceptibility Initiative. Our red pandas at SCBI’s headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia are also in the study. Five red pandas live at SCBI in Front Royal and one red panda, Shama, lives at the Zoo. Chengdu houses the most red pandas of any facility in the world.

February 21

Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer is the lead veterinarian at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Department of Conservation Medicine. In the past few months she and other Zoo scientists have traveled to China for different giant panda conservation initatives. Below she writes about some of their trips.

The past few months have been very busy. In November I traveled to China with Dr. Elizabeth Freeman from George Mason University, thanks to a donation from the Ford Motor Company Fund, for the annual Giant Panda Technical Meeting in Chengdu, China. The Technical meeting is a two-to-four-day meeting that is hosted annually in China. All of the giant panda scientists worldwide go – which is probably around 100 people. During the meeting we participated in discussions with giant panda experts in China on current reintroduction projects, emerging giant panda health concerns, and reproductive studies. Chinese scientists are working exclusively on the reintroduction projects, but it was interesting to hear what they have been doing. Last year one young male panda was introduced into the wild. He was born in captivity, but his mother was born in the wild. That was part of a CWCA (Chinese Wildlife Conservation Administration) project. And one of our very own SCBI scientists, Jon Ballou, talked about giant panda genetics. Each presentation was given in both English and Chinese thanks to the help of translators. My presentation was translated simultaneously into Chinese as I was speaking.

Giant Panda

Photo courtesy of Janice Sveda.

In December, the month after the Giant Panda Technical Meeting, David M. Rubenstein Fellow Andrea Lee traveled to China to present the preliminary results of the giant panda parasite study conducted with Chinese veterinary experts in giant panda health. This study was conducted during the fall of 2012 at Bifengxia Giant Panda Center (CWCA). Round worms are the biggest problem we have found, but we will continue to conduct parasite studies for the next five years. Additionally, she continued collecting red panda health data working with veterinarians at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Last month Kendall Bilbrey, a graduate of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, joined the SCBI team to continue data collection for the Ford Motor Company Fund’s Giant Panda Comparative Medicine and Disease Susceptibility Initiative. This is a long-term collaborative effort between CWCA, SCBI's Department of Conservation Medicine and George Mason University to learn more about health and disease of the giant panda.

Finally, this month I started working with Andrea Lee, a veterinary biotechnologist, and Kendall Bilbrey in preparation for a trip to China in March. This trip will be part of the Ford Motor Company Fund’s Giant Panda Comparative Medicine and Disease Susceptibility Initiative. We’ll keep you updated on our research in the coming months!

February 14

Over the next few months we’ll be bringing you giant panda updates that will focus on Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and the research Zoo scientists conduct related to giant pandas around the world. You'll be hearing from many different experts at the Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. The update below about Mei Xiang and Tian Tian was written by giant panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

We are starting to see slight changes in Mei Xiang’s and Tian Tian’s behavior, as well as some physical changes. There have not been any changes in Mei Xiang’s hormones, yet, however. This information, taken together, and compared against previous years’ data, tells us that breeding season will most likely be between mid-March and Mid-April, if things continue along the current trajectory. Keep in mind however, that this is only an estimate, and that a female giant panda’s estrus can vary greatly from season to season, as Mei Xiang has shown us in the past. Our breeding plan for this year is the same as last year.

Tian Tian

We're entering this 2013 breeding season with renewed optimism. Mei Xiang has proven that an older female who hasn’t had a cub in many years can indeed become pregnant. She also reminded us that she continues to be an excellent mother.

In the spirit of Valentine's Day watch a special video from Juan, a giant panda keeper at the Zoo, explain about breeding season at the Zoo! If you're looking for the perfect valentine for the love of your life, you can send them a giant panda Critter Cupid complete with the video, a beautiful photo and a personalized message. Valentines for your otteragous family, sea lion best friend, firefoxy single friend and your tiger "amour" are also available. Each Critter Cupid is $10 and all proceeds support the Zoo.

February 7

Seven days and counting. . .

If you’re a panda fan or if you know a panda fan – we have the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for you! Send a giant panda Critter Cupid – complete with a special video featuring Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and one of our panda keepers! In the video, Juan tells the story of Mei and Tian, their version of “love notes,” and he talks about how we care for the bears. Each e-valentine comes with a beautiful photo of Mei and Tian, and a personalized note from you.

Certainly more unique than a box of chocolates or flowers — tell someone special how in love you are, with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s help! All proceeds from each $10 Critter Cupid support the Zoo! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Please note giant panda Critter Cupids are recommended for adults, as breeding is discussed in the video message. Other species, including California sea lion and Asian small-clawed otter Critter Cupids are available to send to children, family or friends.

January 29

Mei Xiang’s den has been transformed for the new breeding season! Observant panda cam viewers have no doubt seen the difference in the configuration of the barred barriers. By shifting the angle of the bars, keepers will be able to have more direct access to Mei Xiang and future cub(s) while they are resting in the nest area. The old bars were recycled, making the renovations not only a little greener, but also a little less overwhelming for Mei Xiang. It was as if the “furniture” was simply rearranged one day.

Keepers are now working on desensitization training (getting her used to the new set up, and getting her comfortable having keepers in close proximity to her while protected by the new barrier). As we had hoped, Mei Xiang is barely fazed by the changes, and is now regularly participating in training sessions in the remodeled den.

January 18

One of the biggest questions scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) were working hand-in-hand with their colleagues in China to understand in the late 1990s was: why are pandas ‘challenged’ at reproducing? Almost a decade later, scientists are still answering questions about giant panda reproduction, but a new generation of scientists are now also contributing to scientific breakthroughs.

It was during the late 1990s while surveying the major panda breeding sites in China that SCBI researchers first met Yan Huang. “We met this eager young investigator who wanted to learn more about improving reproductive health and consistency in giant pandas,” says David Wildt, head of SCBI’s Center for Species Survival. Wildt and the late Dr. JoGayle Howard began working with Yan.

Under their guidance Yan learned many new methods for improving panda reproductive health and success. They included collecting and freeze-thawing sperm, which are vitally important for artificial inseminations (AIs) and effectively managing pandas. Yan trained at SCBI’s campus at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and its headquarters in Front Royal, Va., and in China.

Once a student, Yan is now making his own advances in giant panda research. Recently the premier reproduction journal, Biology of Reproduction, published an article about improving reproductive success in pandas. Yan was the lead author of the paper that details how to determine the exact date to perform an artificial insemination. He worked with his Chinese colleagues on his research, and Wildt was a collaborator. Knowing exactly when to perform an artificial insemination on a female giant panda is very important. Female giant pandas come into estrus for 24 to 72 hours each year, which means scientists only have one brief window of opportunity to perform an AI.

Giant Panda AI

Giant panda artificial insemination at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Yan tracked reproductive hormones in urine and used DNA paternity analysis to determine the best time to perform an AI on a female panda. He found that the best day to do an AI coincides with the peak day of urinary estrogen production. Based on the DNA paternity analysis, Yan saw that the male whose sperm was used for an AI on the peak day of urinary estrogen production in the female was the father of the female’s cub. “So,” Wildt explains of Yan’s research, “it’s all about timing. Doing an AI later in the short estrus is not worthwhile or a good use of frozen sperm.

Yan is now a leader in developing new and novel methods for reintroducing pandas into the wild in Sichuan Province.  “Huang Yan is a perfect example of what we are doing at SCBI – creating scientists with multiple skills – working towards training ourselves right out of a job”.

One of the National Zoo’s goals is to train future generations of conservationists, who will make the next major advances in conservation science. This capacity-building extends across many species, ecosystems and scientific disciplines, and has resulted in powerful collaborations and important studies, including for the iconic giant panda.

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