One year ago, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomed Xiao Qi Ji—a precious giant panda born in the midst of a global pandemic. Fans who follow the beloved bear’s #PandaStory from the beginning reveled in watching him grow into the playful and curious cub he is today. As the giant panda team prepares to celebrate Xiao Qi Ji’s first birthday Aug. 21, take a look back at his top 12 milestones that left panda fans around the world in awe and ‘aww.’
1. First Veterinary Exam
At 6:35 p.m. Aug. 21, 2020, a precious giant panda cub arrived! Mother Mei Xiang immediately picked up her cub and cuddled it close. During those first critical days, she focused all her attention on caring for her newborn.
The cub gained weight and grew into the pandas’ signature ‘plump,’ a sign that it was getting good nutrition from Mei Xiang’s milk. On Sept. 19, Zoo veterinarians conducted the newborn’s first medical exam. The veterinary team listened to the cub’s heart and lungs, palpated its stomach, tested its suckle reflex and moved all four limbs to assess its musculoskeletal development. All signs pointed to a healthy and strong bear!
Veterinarians took a quick swab of the cub’s cheek for DNA analysis. Outwardly, male and female cubs appear similar at birth, so a genetic test was the most accurate way to determine whether the cub was a male or female. They brought the swab to the Zoo’s Center for Conservation Genomics, where Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists analyzed the cub’s DNA to confirm its sex. After weeks of anticipation, Zoo scientists determined the giant panda cub was a male!
2. First Steps
Thanks to fans all over the world, the Zoo’s giant panda cub received his name Nov. 23—Xiao Qi Ji, which means “little miracle” in Mandarin Chinese.
Then, at 3 months and 5 days old, Xiao Qi Ji took his first steps! On Thanksgiving morning, he rested just outside the den while his mother slept inside. After months of practice, he positioned all four feet beneath him and took a few wobbly steps toward her before toppling over.
3. First Toys
In January 2021, the 4-month-old cub’s interest in his surroundings really took off. Keepers gave him two toys to investigate: a small red egg (perfectly sized for a panda cub) and an empty PVC puzzle feeder.
These enrichment items encourage the giant pandas to keep physically active and mentally sharp; they also give the bears an opportunity to use their natural behaviors and choose how to spend their time.
When Xiao Qi Ji explored the habitat and happened upon these toys, he usually stopped for a few minutes to paw at them, pick them up and give them a nibble. At that age, Hei seemed to explore the world with his mouth and often tried to initiate a play session with a few not-so-ferocious bites.. Xiao Qi J nibbled on everything from his paws and enrichment toys to Mei Xiang’s ears!
4. First Taste of Sweet Potato
The day Xiao Qi Ji turned 5 months old, keepers decided to introduce him to something new. Using a piece of bamboo shred as a spoon, they scraped some cooked sweet potato onto the end, then handed it over to Xiao Qi Ji. He grabbed the bamboo in his mouth, paused for a moment to take in the new taste, then lay back and licked the remainder. When they offered him more, he wouldn’t stop nibbling on it!
Xiao Qi Ji clearly enjoyed this new treat, which is not surprising since both Mei Xiang and his father, Tian Tian, are also fond of sweet potatoes. In addition to bamboo, nutrient-rich biscuits, carrots and apples, sweet potatoes are part of our pandas’ balanced diet.
5. First Virtual Encounter With Fans
On Jan. 27, the giant panda team hosted their first-ever virtual encounter with Xiao Qi Ji. During the live broadcast, they gave him a bright green ball with a small handle. Since it is made from a softer material than the adults’ toys, it’s perfect for him to chew on and sink his claws into. It is also scented like green apple, providing some olfactory enrichment, too! During the livestream, this ball was at the center of a friendly game of tug-of-war between Xiao Qi Ji and keeper Marty Dearie.