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2015 Panda Updates

August 27

Overnight it was evident to panda keepers and veterinarians that our healthy panda cub was active and nursing appropriately throughout the night. Mei is showing proper maternal care which includes short sleep cycles, adjusting the tiny cub in her arms for better positioning and grooming. The staff heard strong vocalizations from the cub and observed it a couple times during the night. The cub is growing more hair, its tail looks plump and the cub overall looks great.

The Zoo will continue to provide daily updates on Mei Xiang and the cub through its @SmithsonianZoo Instagram account using #PandaStory and through the Giant Panda e-newsletter.

August 26

The smaller of the two giant panda cubs born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo Aug. 22, died shortly after 2 p.m. today, Aug. 26. The panda team rotated both cubs in the past 24 hours allowing each to benefit from spending time with their mother, Mei Xiang. The smaller cub was with Mei Xiang from about 2 p.m. yesterday, Aug. 25, until this morning. When the panda team swapped the cubs this morning, they assessed the little cub and had concerns because it had not increased in weight, appeared weaker and exhibited possible respiratory issues.

The panda team immediately began taking actions to improve the condition of the smaller cub. They administered antibiotics, respiratory support, formula and fluids.

The Zoo's pathologists will perform a necropsy (animal autopsy) on the 4-day-old giant cub. A final pathology report will provide more information in the next few weeks. The veterinary and pathology team will continue to work closely during the ongoing histological evaluation.

At the time of death, the cub weighed 79.8 grams, about 2.8 ounces. The mortality rate for panda cubs in their first year in human care is 26 percent for males and 20 percent for females. Note that some early mortality rates may be underestimated.

Giant pandas give birth to twins approximately 50 percent of the time. This is only the third time a giant panda living in the United States has given birth to twins. At the birth of the second cub, Mei Xiang demonstrated that she was challenged to care for both cubs, but she did not indicate a preference for one cub over the other. The collective scientific knowledge about giant panda mothers is that they are best able to care for one cub at a time.

Per the Giant Panda Twin Hand-Rearing protocol, the panda team alternately swapped the cubs, allowing one to nurse and spend time with Mei Xiang while the other was bottle fed and kept warm in an incubator. The primary goal for the panda team was for both cubs to have the benefit of nursing and spending time with their mother. The cub-swapping approach the panda team used to care for the twin cubs was developed by Chinese colleagues during the past 15 years.

The panda team continues to monitor Mei Xiang and the larger cub via the Panda Cams. They are encouraged that this cub appears to be strong and robust, and that it is behaving normally, urinating and defecating. At last weigh-in, the cub weighed 137.7 grams. Despite these encouraging signs, the team continues to closely monitor both Mei Xiang and her cub around the clock, as the cub is still vulnerable and the risk remains high.

August 25

Mei Xiang has not been a willing participant in the panda team's efforts to switch the cubs since 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon. She has the larger cub in her possession. The panda team is caring for the smaller cub and will continue efforts to swap the cubs about every four hours. However, because the smaller cub has been away from Mei, the panda team is now managing it more intensely. The little cub's behaviors are good. The team is concerned about its fluctuating weight since the cub is now more than 48 hours old. The most important thing for the panda team is to help the cub get enough fluids and nutrients. To accomplish this, they are bottle and tube feeding the cub. The cub has shown some signs of regurgitation which can lead to aspiration in such a tiny creature. To be prudent, the veterinarians are administering antibiotics to prevent possible infection. It's very important to keep the cub hydrated so they are alternating an infant electrolyte solution with formula and administering fluids under the skin. The cub is urinating and defecating well. The veterinarians have not seen any sign of respiratory distress.

Our observations of the larger cub from yesterday indicate it is doing well and we're confident Mei Xiang is taking very good care of it. We remain in a high-risk period.

We've received a lot of questions about the tiny size of the panda cubs. Bear cubs have the smallest infant-to-mother size ratio of any placental mammal at approx. 1 to 700. Mei Xiang currently weighs about 238 pounds. One of the cubs weighed 86 grams at birth, a 1 to 1,256 ratio of cub to mom. The larger cub weighed 138 grams at birth, a 1 to 783 ratio of cub to mom.

Asia Trail keepers (who successfully hand-reared a sloth bear named Remi last year), additional veterinarian staff and a panda keeper from Zoo Atlanta have been well integrated into the panda team. The entire Zoo community appreciates the outpouring of well-wishes from around the world.

Follow #PandaStory on Instagram (@SmithsonianZoo) and Twitter (@NationalZoo) fort the latest. If the panda cam is maxed out due to high-demand, download the Zoo's app (App Store or Google Play) to get access to all our animal cams.

Photo Credit: Shellie Pick, Smithsonian's National Zoo
Photo Caption: Keeper Stacey Tabellario bottle feeds the smaller of the two giant panda cubs.

August 24

Our panda cubs are doing well but the panda team had a challenging night. When they tried to swap the cubs at 11p.m., Mei Xiang would not set down the cub she had in her possession. Consequently, the panda team cared for the smaller cub throughout the night until 7:05 a.m. when they successfully swapped the cubs. The panda team supplemented the smaller cub with formula by bottle feeding. They were concerned that the smaller cub was not getting enough volume so they moved to tube feeding which went well and quickly. Our goal is for each cub to spend an equal amount of time with their mother. As we've stated, the newborn cubs are vulnerable and this first week is incredibly important and the risk remains high. Our team is doing great work around the clock and we'll continue to keep you posted. Follow #PandaStory on Instagram (@SmithsonianZoo) and Twitter (@NationalZoo) fort the latest. If the panda cam is maxed out due to high-demand, download the Zoo's app (App Store or Google Play) to get access to all our animal cams.

August 23

The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute confirms one giant panda cub born at 5:35 p.m. and a second born at 10:07 p.m., Aug, 22. (See a video of the second cub's first moments.) Shortly after the second birth, a panda team of three keepers retrieved one of the cubs per the Zoo's Giant Panda Twin Hand-Rearing protocol. The cub was placed in an incubator and cared for by veterinarians and panda keepers.

The panda team believes the first cub they retrieved was the second cub born at 10:07 p.m. This cub continues to vocalize very well and appears healthy. It weighed 138 grams last night and this morning weighed 132.4 grams. The cub has urinated and defecated - all good signs. The team fed the cub three times overnight at 2:20 a.m., 3:40 a.m., and 5:00 a.m. The cub received 30 – 40 percent of the serum it was hand-fed. The serum was banked from blood drawn from Mei Xiang last April during the artificial insemination. The nursing bouts were short but the team considers them successful. The goal was to give the cub antibodies (colostrum alternative) as it had not yet nursed on Mei Xiang. This cub has now been marked with a little green food coloring on its left hip. (Watch veterinarians exam the cub born Aug. 22 at 5:35 p.m.)

At approximately 6:30 a.m. this morning, the panda team was able to swap cubs. The cub they had in the incubator this morning is believed to be the first born, and weighs 86.3 grams. It is vocalizing very well and appears strong. The panda team does not plan to feed this cub as it will be switched back to Mei Xiang in a couple of hours. However, they are prepared to feed the cub if it needed. The Smithsonian's National Zoo is one of a few zoos with expert nutritionists on staff. They have prepared formula and trained for this scenario. Formula ingredients include: water; human baby formula; and puppy formula. The ingredients are mixed together and strained to omit clumps. Our concern now is whether Mei Xiang will allow the panda team to consistently swap the cubs. The team developed a few different strategies and will continue to try different methods of swapping and hand-rearing. Much of their methods will be dictated by Mei Xiang.

The panda team will alternately swap the cubs, allowing one to nurse and spend time with Mei Xiang while the other is being bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. The primary goal for the panda team is for both cubs to have the benefit of nursing and spending time with their mother. It is too early to guess about when the cubs will be placed together. Giant pandas give birth to twins approximately 50 percent of the time. This is only the third time a giant panda living in the United States has given birth to twins. There are only two other female giant pandas around the world who have successfully reared twins and it required a lot of human support.

The Zoo's panda team is monitoring Mei Xiang and the cub via the Zoo's panda cams. Due to a high volume of viewers, you may experience trouble playing the panda cams. Please try to refresh the page to reestablish your connection; or if you'd like to watch the cam uninterrupted, we suggest downloading the Smithsonian's National Zoo App.

August 19

Follow our #PandaStory on Instagram or on our website!

For the first time at the National Zoo, veterinarians detected something new during an ultrasound procedure this morning on giant panda Mei Xiang. They believe it is a developing giant panda fetus. Based on the size of the fetus, which is about four centimeters, veterinarians estimate that Mei Xiang could give birth early next week, or possibly in early September. In past years, veterinarians have only detected changes to Mei Xiang's uterus, which occurs for both a pregnancy and pseudopregnancy. Historically, and since Aug. 7 of this year, Mei Xiang declined participating in ultrasounds at this stage, so it was a surprise when she responded to the panda keepers' calls this morning.

There is a substantial possibility that Mei Xiang could resorb or miscarry a fetus. Scientists do not fully understand why some mammals resorb fetuses.

The Zoo's panda team is monitoring Mei Xiang through the Zoo's panda cams. She is continuing to spend more time in her den, sleeping more, body licking and cradling objects - all behaviors consistent with a pregnancy or pseudopregnancy.

"Today, we are cautiously optimistic," said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. "We want a healthy cub for all the right conservation reasons. I am excited, but I have to say that we were prepared for a cub even before this morning's ultrasound. Our expert team of keepers, scientists and veterinarians are going to do exactly what they are trained to do and I'll just ask everyone to remain positive with us."

Reproductive scientists from the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) artificially inseminated Mei Xiang April 26 and 27. For the first time, scientists used semen collected from a giant panda named Hui Hui (h-WEI h-WEI). He lives at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong and was determined to be one of the best genetic matches for Mei Xiang. A cub by Mei Xiang and Hui Hui would be very genetically valuable, helping to preserve the genetic diversity of the panda population in human care.

The sample from Hui Hui was frozen and flown from China to the cryopreservation bank at the National Zoo. Scientists also used high-quality fresh semen collected from the Zoo's male giant panda, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), for the artificial inseminations. DNA analysis will determine the sire of the cub.

SCBI scientists confirmed that a secondary rise in giant panda Mei Xiang's urinary progesterone levels began July 20. This signaled that Mei Xiang would either have a cub or experience the end of a pseudopregnancy within 30 to 50 days.

At that time, Mei Xiang also began exhibiting behaviors consistent with pregnancy or pseudopregnancy. She started nest building, chose to spend more time in her den, slept more and ate less. In the past week, she also spent time body licking and cradling toys. The panda team expects Mei Xiang to spend almost all of her time in her den for the next several weeks. The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat will close completely until further notice to provide quiet for Mei Xiang. She will continue to be visible on the panda cams. Visitors can also see Tian Tian and 2-year-old Bao Bao (BOW-BOW), in their outdoor enclosures and on the panda cams. With the support of Friends of the National Zoo volunteers who operate the panda cam, the panda team will begin the 24hour watch.

Mei Xiang has given birth to two surviving cubs: Tai Shan (tie-SHON) and Bao Bao. Tai Shan was born July 9, 2005, and he now lives in China. Bao Bao was born Aug. 23, 2013. She will live at the Zoo until she turns 4; at that time, she will also go to live in China and, eventually, enter the giant panda breeding program. Tai Shan and Bao Bao were born as the result of artificial inseminations.

Bao Bao will turn two this Sunday, Aug. 23. Interested visitors may watch her receive a frozen treat in her outdoor yard at 10 a.m.

The Zoo will continue to provide daily updates on Mei Xiang through its @SmithsonianZoo Instagram account using #PandaStory, and the Giant Panda e-newsletter.

August 10

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) scientists have confirmed a secondary rise in giant panda Mei Xiang's (may-SHONG) urinary progesterone levels. The slow rise started July 20 and indicates that she will either have a cub or experience the end of a pseudopregnancy within 30 to 50 days. Scientists have been carefully tracking Mei Xiang's hormone levels since she was artificially inseminated April 26 and 27. The inseminations used frozen sperm collected from Hui Hui, a panda living in China, and fresh sperm collected from the National Zoo's Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN).

The Zoo's panda team has been monitoring Mei Xiang very closely since the procedures. Veterinarians will continue regular ultrasounds as Mei Xiang chooses to participate in them. They are monitoring changes in her reproductive tract and evaluating for evidence of a fetus. The only way to definitively determine if a giant panda is pregnant is to detect a fetus on an ultrasound. Scientists will also continue to monitor her hormone levels through daily analyses. A female's behavior and hormones mimic a pregnancy even if she is experiencing a pseudopregnancy. Giant panda fetuses do not start developing until the final weeks of gestation, making it difficult to determine if there is a pregnancy. It may still be too early to detect a fetus on an ultrasound.

Mei Xiang has begun exhibiting behaviors consistent with a rise in urinary progesterone. She is nest building, choosing to spend more time in her den, sleeping more and eating less. The area of the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat closest to her den will soon close to provide her with quiet; Mei Xiang shows extra sensitivity to noise during the final weeks of a pseudopregnancy or pregnancy. Panda fans can watch Mei Xiang on the panda cams, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, and the Zoo will continue providing regular updates on Mei Xiang using #PandaStory on Instagram.

Visitors to the panda habitat can see Tian Tian and Bao Bao outside as usual, as well as Mei Xiang when she chooses to go into her outdoor exhibit.

Mei Xiang has given birth to two surviving cubs, Tai Shan (tie-SHON) and Bao Bao. Tai Shan was born July 9, 2005, and he now lives in China. Bao Bao was born Aug. 23, 2013. She will live at the Zoo until she turns 4; she will then go to live in China and eventually enter the giant panda breeding program. Tai Shan and Bao Bao were born as the result of artificial inseminations.

August 4 -Training Giant Panda Vets

Last month Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute chief veterinarian, Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer and veterinarians from the San Diego Zoo and Hong Kong Zoo led a first-of-its-kind veterinary workshop at the Dujiangyan Panda Base to diagnose and elevate the level of medicine provided to giant pandas within China. During the workshop, veterinarians from all over China worked in partnership with veterinarians at Dujiangyan and international veterinary experts in diagnosing and treating ailments found in aging pandas. Just like humans, older pandas generally start to encounter more health issues, especially dental and ocular problems, the older they get. As part of the workshop, the veterinarians anesthetized eight giant pandas simultaneously to examine them closely. Each panda had a team of Chinese and international veterinary specialists using state-of-the-art monitoring and diagnostic equipment devoted to their care.

Dr. Aitken-Palmer partnered with Li Caiwu of Dujiangyan Panda Base to lead her team of veterinarians, which consisted of a group of about five veterinarians from zoos all over China. They anesthetized two giant pandas over 20 years old (giant pandas usually live to be in their mid to upper 20s). They were able to diagnose several things not previously diagnosed in the individuals including reproductive tumors (which may explain why the individuals had not been reproductive), cataracts, anemia, severe arthritis and dental disease. During the workshop, Pan Pan, a 30-year-old male panda famous for his natural breeding skills was evaluated. He's father to at least 32 cubs, including the Zoo's own Tian Tian!

The workshop was a big success! All the veterinarians involved from Dujiangyan and around China deserve many congratulations as they work together to learn more about giant panda health and disease.

This veterinary training workshop is one of a series of three workshops focused on developing the Dujiangyan Panda Base into a center of veterinary excellence. Dr. Aitken-Palmer is leading the third and final workshop on laboratory diagnostics in November. SCBI's involvement in all three workshops has been made possible by the Ford Motor Company Fund, Hong Kong Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and the Rubenstein Family.

And finally, a #PandaStory update! We still do not know if Mei Xiang is pregnant or experiencing a pseudopregnancy. It isn't possible to determine if a female is pregnant from monitoring her behavior and hormones alone. Both will mimic a pregnancy even if she is experiencing a pseudopregnancy. Our veterinarians will continue performing ultrasounds twice a week, but they have not seen any evidence of a fetus yet.

Mei has started exhibiting behaviors associated with pregnancy/pseudopregnancy. She is not eating as much bamboo as usual, she is sleeping more during the day, and she is nest-building at night. Since our keepers have started noticing changes, our corps of skilled volunteer giant panda behavior watchers are going to start observing Mei very closely. That means that both panda cams may be focused on Mei from time to time. But don't worry, Bao Bao will still be on camera! Even though our behavior watchers will be recording Mei's behavior, we have not moved to 24-hour cub watch yet. That likely will not happen until later this summer, so follow @smithsonianzoo on Instagram! Check out behind-the-scenes giant panda photos and videos with the hashtags #PandaStory and #InstaScience.

June 26

This panda update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

We still don't know if Mei Xiang is pregnant or pseudopregnant. (Remember her hormones and behavior will mimic a pregnancy even if she is pseudopregnant!) If you have been regularly watching the panda cams, you may have noticed that Mei Xiang has pulled some bamboo into her den over the last few days. However, it is likely too early to call this true "nest-building." It's been two months since the artificial inseminations. Historically, Mei usually doesn't start nest-building so soon after an artificial insemination. In the past when we saw this behavior from Mei for a few days, or even a few weeks, she often dashed our hopes by defecating in the den. If she defecates in the den, Mei Xiang herself doesn't consider the area to be a true nest yet. A panda would never soil her nest once established, so that remains our true test. Another explanation could simply be that Mei Xiang wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet of her den. Either way, we simply have to wait a little while longer to find out if Mei Xiang considers this to be a real nest. And then, we still have to wait to find out if she's pregnant because a female would build a nest if she's pregnant or pseudopregnant! In the meantime, it couldn't hurt to think positively and keep our fingers crossed, right?!

In the next habitat over, Bao Bao got some special enrichment on Tuesday when it was extremely hot. Our giant pandas always have access to chilled areas and misters in their yards to keep them cool, and their indoor enclosures are air conditioned. But, sometimes keepers will give them enrichment items to help keep them cool as well. Bao Bao got a bear-sized ice cube, which she promptly rubbed all over herself. The panda cams caught her playing with the ice.

June 2

biologists with Tai Shan in China

This panda update was written by biologist Laurie Thompson.

As part of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute's ongoing collaboration with our Chinese panda colleagues, panda keeper Becky Malinsky and I were able to spend 10 days visiting three giant panda bases earlier this spring. The first two we visited, Bifengxia and Dujiangyan, are managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. At the Bifengxia Base, our goal was to learn about how they prepare for breeding season and hopefully see some natural breeding. Breeding season is managed a little differently there since they have many more pandas. We spent four days observing the process of moving males in and out of the breeding facility in order to find one that the female found suitable. On our final day, we observed a breeding attempt between Xiu Lan and Wu Gang. Unfortunately, the pandas did not breed naturally. We were also able to see our Chinese colleagues perform an artificial insemination.

After leaving Bifengxia, we went to the panda base in Dujiangyan. Dujiangyan is a research facility closed to the public, and it is quiet and very beautiful. Our first panda cub Tai Shan lives there. (Though, he's not a cub anymore.) We were able to visit with both Tai and his keeper Lui Yi. Tai Shan did not recognize our voices, but that was not unexpected. It has been 5 years since he moved. We were thrilled to see, that he seems to adore his keeper. And Pan Pan (who is Tai's 30 year-old grandfather) lives right next door to Tai! We toured the rest of the center and saw more giant pandas and red pandas. Our next stop was the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where we received a tour of the giant panda and red panda exhibits. Shortly after we got home Mei Xiang went into estrus and now we are just waiting to see if we'll have a new cub this summer!

tai shan in china

April 27


After carefully monitoring the behavior of both its giant pandas and female Mei Xiang's (may-SHONG) hormones for weeks, the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute's team of reproductive scientists, veterinarians and panda keepers performed two artificial inseminations within the last 24 hours. The first procedure started at 6 p.m. on April 26, and the second began at 7:30 this morning, April 27. Daily hormone reports showed Mei Xiang's estrogen levels peaked Sunday morning, an indication that she was in estrus and able to become pregnant.

For the first time this year, scientists used semen collected from a giant panda living at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, China. The chosen male panda, Hui Hui (h-WEI h-WEI), was determined to be one of the best genetic matches for Mei Xiang.

Although the Zoo's male panda Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN) is not as genetically valuable as Mei Xiang, he is still important to the panda population. Scientists also used high-quality fresh semen collected from Tian Tian for the artificial inseminations. The first procedure used a combination of sperm from Hui Hui and Tian Tian. The second procedure also used thawed sperm from Hui Hui and sperm refrigerated overnight from Tian Tian. If Mei Xiang gives birth, scientists will use a DNA test to determine which male sired the cub.

Mei Xiang was put under general anesthesia for the non-surgical artificial insemination(s). Each procedure took about an hour. The Zoo live-streamed portions of the first procedure on Twitter using Perioscope and live-posted to Instagram using #PandaStory.

Jon Ballou, a research scientist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), made the breeding recommendation. He makes the breeding recommendations for all eligible giant pandas living in human care. The sample from Hui Hui was frozen and flown from China to SCBI's cryopreservation bank at the National Zoo. The Zoo chronicled the journey on Instagram using #PandaStory.

Mei Xiang is genetically valuable and has two surviving offspring, both the results of artificial inseminations. Tai Shan (tie-SHON) and Bao Bao (BOW-BOW) were both sired by Tian Tian, whose genes are well-represented in the giant panda population living in human care because his father was a very successful breeder. Hui Hui has not yet sired any cubs. A cub produced by Mei Xiang and Hui Hui would be very genetically valuable, helping to preserve the genetic diversity of the panda population in human care.

Giant panda pregnancies generally last between three and six months. Zoo veternarians will conduct ultrasounds to determine if she is pregnant. Scientists will also monitor her hormones to determine when she is near the end of a pseudopregnancy or pregnancy. There is no way to determine if a female is pregnant from hormone analysis and behavior alone. Hormones and behavior will mimic a pregnancy even if she is pseudopregnant. The only definitive way to determine if she is pregnant is to see a developing fetus on an ultrasound.

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

April 20

Follow our #PandaStory on Instagram or online!

Let’s talk about panda sex (or perhaps lack thereof). Panda breeding season is a race against the biological clock. It only comes once a year for 24-48 hours, and our giant panda team must be ready. Our female giant panda Mei Xiang should enter estrus before the end of May. The panda team will artificially inseminate her with frozen-thawed semen. This year for the first time, our panda team may use semen collected from a male panda living in China. With only 2,256 pandas on the planet, 392 of which live in human care, genetics play a big role in breeding season. The best genetic match for Mei Xiang happens to be in China. So, what’s a scientist to do when the best genetic match for your female panda is on the other side of the world? Fly frozen semen to the intended female. For the next 24 hours we’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at the trip. SBCI scientist Caitlin Burrell is making the trip from the Bifengxia panda base with the cargo. #PandaStory #InstaScience

A photo posted by Smithsonian's National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

April 1

Bao Bao explored her new yard for the very first time this morning! She spent over an hour outside checking out her new digs. Keepers say that she was cautious at first (which she often is with new experiences), but explored every nook-and-cranny of the yard. She's still learning the lay-of-the-land in her yard, and touched the hot wire, which was not unexpected. Keepers have tagged the hotwires with yellow tape to help her identify them. Bao Bao actually seemed to be much more wary of some yard guests. Two wild ducks decided to hang out in her yard for a little while this morning. She was a little unsure of them and gave them a wide berth. Wild ducks sometimes stop in the panda yards for a waddle or paddle in the pools in the panda yards, but they don't pose any danger to the pandas. After Bao Bao had checked everything out she decided to head back inside. The keepers expect that she will start spending more and more time in her yard as she gets acclimated to it.

March 23

This update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

Hopefully Friday morning was the last hurrah for winter 2014-2015. While our pandas enjoy the snowy weather and all the tobogganing opportunities that it can bring, it also makes things more challenging logistically. While long-time National Zoo panda followers recall our first cub, Tai Shan, spending most of his independent days in panda yard 3, we wanted to update it for Bao Bao. However, bad weather has stalled progress on our "Bao Bao proofing" operations many times in recent weeks. We have learned over the last 19 months that she looks for different opportunities for adventure than her parents or her big brother. Even with the weather delays, we expect work to be completed sometime next week. In the meantime, we rotate three bears between two yards on many days. Mei Xiang seems to be much more content now that she is back in "her" part of the panda house, and Bao Bao is certainly making herself at home in enclosure 4. As many parents in our metropolitan area are experiencing with their own children, sometimes Bao Bao can get restless inside, but overall she seems to be making the most of it, and enjoys watching the progress of the work from the runway that leads out to her yard. Bao Bao has located some preferred napping spots in enclosure 4, and will no doubt find some new favorites in her new and improved yard this week! No need to fret about the hemlock tree—after breeding season, we will have the flexibility to rotate all of the pandas through all three of the yards, just as we always have. (But they will continue sharing our two available yards for a little bit longer.) Bao Bao's reunion with her favorite tree will most likely be marked with a nice nap for old time's sake!

March 6



This update was written by panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

It has been nearly a week since Mei Xiang and Bao Bao were separated, and we are happy to report that they are both doing well. With any major change in life, there is an adjustment period, but each of our female pandas are settling in and moving forward in the next phase of their lives. As we had expected, weaning was a much easier process for Bao Bao than for her big brother Tai Shan back in 2007. More independent all along than her brother, we have heard less contact calling from Bao Bao, and overall little reaction to her new solitary lifestyle. That being said, there are some vocalizations between our pandas, and that is to be expected. In the wild, a female cub would venture off on her own, away from her mother completely. In captivity, it is not possible to completely move a weaned cub out of earshot, and they do sometimes call to each other and react to each other. Our adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian vocalize to each other from time to time as well. The advantage to having Bao Bao near her parents is that she may be able to observe breeding behaviors from them that may help her to be a more successful breeder when she moves to China. We expect Mei Xiang to come into estrus this spring, and accordingly, we are seeing some pre-reproductive behaviors from both her and Tian Tian—more patrolling, less interest in food, increased scent marking and vocalizing, etc.

As everyone is well aware, we have experienced both an ice storm and a snow storm in the Washington, D.C. area within the last week. While the giant pandas are well-equipped for such weather, we humans sadly are not! There are many snow and ice removal activities that need to be worked into our routines here at the zoo, that are not a normal part of our days. Keepers have to chip away at ice that builds up and prevents gates from operating normally. Our facilities staff work round the clock to clear the snow and ice from the park so that we can open walkways to our visitors in a timely manner. Even the bamboo that so beautifully surrounds our panda exhibit pops and snaps loudly as it bends under the increased weight of the ice and snow. Giant pandas rely heavily on their sense of hearing, so they are even more keenly aware of the "new" sounds than we are! Over the last week, we have seen all three of our pandas react to the different sounds around them, and each copes in their own unique way. Viewers may have seen Bao Bao retreat to her safe haven of her hemlock tree well into the night, Mei Xiang running around and vocalizing, or Tian Tian sitting in the snow listening with ears up on high alert, before flopping over for a nap! As I type this in the panda keeper office, I can hear snow removal activities in the background. The pandas, who are all currently indoors, can hear it too, as their hearing is much better than ours, and all three have acclimated to the sounds—they are all eating bamboo, not reacting to the sounds at all.

It has been quite an eventful week here at the panda house, but a good one. All three of our solitary bears are eating well, sleeping well, interacting with their keepers and their environment in species-appropriate ways, and even taking a bit of time to stop and enjoy the snow. These are the behaviors that we keepers, who know the pandas the best, rely on to tell us that all is well in there world. And by every account, it is!


Bao Bao

March 3

This past weekend brought lots of news for giant pandas around the world, and our three bears at the National Zoo. China's State Forestry Administration released the results of the latest giant panda survey, which found 1,864 bears living in the wild. That's an increase of 16.8 percent since 2003, which is great news for the species.

"As the only species of bear listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and an icon for species conservation, it's vital for scientists to keep monitoring the wild population of giant pandas. Every panda counts," said Steve Monfort, director of Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute. "We're encouraged that the wild population has increased 16.8 percent to 1,864 pandas and not experienced a decline since the 2002 census. Building upon four decades of collaboration with our Chinese colleagues, we're continuing to build scientific partnerships focused on habitat management, wildlife health and training the next generation of conservation scientists."

In collaboration with Chinese scientists, the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are conducting studies to save giant pandas, their habitat and the other endangered species that share it. We are committed to giant panda conservation and will continue to support animal breeding and the development of panda scientists both at the National Zoo and within China. High priorities include working in China to develop effective corridors between panda reserves, restoring habitats, addressing wildlife diseases and working with government agencies to build the capacity to improve management of all wildlife.

Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away from the mountains of China in Washington, D.C., big changes were afoot at the panda habitat. Bao Bao is now fully weaned and living independently from Mei Xiang, as she would in the wild at this age. Keepers have been working towards this for more than six months, always taking their cues from Mei Xiang and Bao Bao. Over the past several weeks the two became comfortable spending six hours or more apart each day. The final step in the weaning process was to get Mei and Bao Bao comfortable spending their nights apart. On Friday and Saturday a member of the panda team stayed at the panda house until 10 p.m. Each night, a keeper monitored both bears carefully to see if either was anxious while in separate enclosures. Just to be on the safe side, Mei and Bao Bao were given access to each other before the late night keeper left at 10 p.m. Finally, on Sunday night after two calm and uneventful nights, the panda team decided it was time to see how Mei and Bao would fare spending an entire night apart. Our panda biologist spent Sunday night in the panda house monitoring both closely, but once again neither seemed to mind being apart. Bao Bao even played with some of her new toys in the middle of the night. The keepers reported that the entire process went smoothly.

Our keepers will be nostalgic for the days when Mei and Bao Bao spent all of their time together, but they are very happy and excited for Bao Bao to continue to grow and thrive on her own. She has officially graduated from a cub to a juvenile panda!

February 19

It’s hard to believe, but Bao Bao is almost 18 months old! Eighteen months is a big milestone for giant panda cubs because they stop nursing and start living separately from their mothers. Bao Bao started the weaning process naturally a few months ago, and now she’s eating significantly more bamboo and solid foods. She also eats separately from Mei Xiang and spends about 6 hours separated from her each day. They will spend increasingly more time apart until Bao Bao is living on her own. Bao Bao has been doing well during the time she spends apart from Mei. Our panda team expects that the process will be complete in early March.

Last month our panda team and veterinarians performed an ultrasound along with human cardiologist Dr. Rosenthal on Mei Xiang as part of a routine checkup. She is in great health. Mei usually participates in ultrasounds when the panda team is monitoring her for possible pregnancies, and the cardiac ultrasound was performed much the same way. She lay down in the training chute while a keeper gave her honey water, a favorite treat, and Dr. Rosenthal looked at her heart and abdomen. She also allowed Dr. Rosenthal to perform the ultrasound while she was standing. The panda keepers have been working with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to perform procedures like ultrasounds, blood draws and routine exams without anesthesia for a very long time, and the pandas are always given the choice whether or not to participate. They almost always choose to participate. Dr. Rosenthal brought all of his own equipment—the same equipment used to perform cardiac ultrasounds on humans—for the exam. And since the ultrasound for Mei was successful, the team will follow the same protocol for an ultrasound with Tian Tian during his next routine checkup.


Bao Bao

January 6

Today was Bao Bao's first time playing in the snow outside! And she was quite the little snow panda. She spent her morning tumbling down the hill in her yard, climbing and sliding down trees and pouncing on her mom Mei Xiang!

Bao Bao also did the panda version of snow tubing, which we caught on video!

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