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#PandaStory: Happy Half-Birthday, Xiao Qi Ji

From the moment his hearty squeal heralded his arrival, giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji became one of the most beloved bears on the planet. With each snuggle, sassy vocalization and sampling of new snacks, Giant Panda Cam viewers delighted in the pure joy of this “little miracle” born under extraordinary circumstances. Celebrate with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as we look back at how this curious cub and his adorable antics have inspired the conservationist in all of us.

Month 1 | From Pink to Plump

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. Having successfully raised three cubs prior, it did not take long for the experienced mother to establish positions for nursing and sleeping. Mei Xiang nursed the cub while she sat at the back of the den, often with her knee propped up on the wall.

Newborn giant panda cubs cannot regulate their own body temperature, so Mei Xiang kept her tiny cub mostly hidden, tucked beneath her armpit or between her forearms to keep him warm. As she shifted positions, lucky Giant Panda Cam viewers caught a quick glimpse of its muzzle, paws and tail from time to time.

When Mei Xiang left the den to eat or drink, the newborn let out some hearty squeals in protest! She quickly returned to the den, picked up her cub and cradled it. Regular, loud cub vocalizations are signs of good health and were music to the panda team’s ears.

At 2 weeks old, the iconic black markings around the panda’s eyes and on its ears, legs and saddle (back) appeared. Keepers retrieved the cub for its first neonatal exam Sept. 13 and remarked that its wispy fur was growing in nicely, though hints of it bright, pink skin showed through in spots on its muzzle, the top of its head, upper back and tail. The active and responsive newborn tipped the scales at 634.8 grams, or just under 1.5 pounds. 

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 cub’s first medical exam. It weighed 952 grams, or just over two pounds. From nose to tail tip, the cub measured 34 centimeters, or 13.4 inches (its tail accounted for two of those inches). 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 cub!

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.

Month 2 | New Sights, Sounds and Pounds

After weeks of anticipation, Zoo scientists determined the giant panda cub was a male! At 7 weeks old, his eyes were fully open. He also reacted to some of the noises around him—a sign his ear canals started to open, too.

By week 8, the giant panda cub was on the move! Although he was not able to walk yet, he pushed himself up using his forearms and positioned his hind legs underneath his hips. Crawling helped the cub exercise his muscles and improve his coordination. His ever-watchful mother allowed him to let out some energy but didn’t let him venture too far. Occasionally, Mei Xiang brought him out of the den for a brief “field trip” into the large indoor habitat, if only for a few moments.

During his second veterinary exam, the cub turned his head to see where keepers’ voices were coming from. It was apparent that his ear canals were open! He was also quite a “wiggle worm” while keepers took his measurements. At 8 weeks old, the plump panda was as round as he was long! Both his length and abdominal girth measured 16.5 inches (42 centimeters), and he tipped the scales at 6.5 pounds.

Month 3 | Field Trips and First Enrichment

As the giant panda cub grew larger and more plump, Mei Xiang no longer needed to cradle him to keep him warm. Instead, the cub snuggled next to his mother and slept on his back—sweet moments that were very cute to watch. Mei Xiang took him on several “field trips” into their large indoor enclosure, mostly at night.   

On Oct. 31, the whole giant panda family got into the Halloween spirit, thanks to the Zoo’s talented Department of Nutrition Sciences team. They whipped up some not-so-spooky “snack-o-lantern” treats for the cub’s parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, made of shredded carrots, applesauce and diluted apple juice pressed into a pumpkin using a Jack-O-Lantern-shaped mold. Keepers presented the 10-week-old cub with a pumpkin as well. Many of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s animals receive pumpkins as a fun enrichment item on Halloween because it gives them something new to smell, touch and investigate.

On Nov. 8, Mei Xiang rested in the doorway of the den. Her son crawled around the den and moved toward her. Mei Xiang stretched her forepaw in his direction and appeared to coax him toward her. After a few seconds, she picked her son up, rolled over with him and placed him on the floor of their large indoor enclosure. He rested in the spot for almost an hour while Mei Xiang ate bamboo nearby. This was a big milestone for the Zoo’s little cub!

At 12 weeks old, the cub’s attempts at crawling and walking were progressing nicely. He was deliberate in his actions and seemed to move in the direction he intended. His upper incisors started to erupt at the gumline, too.

During his third veterinary exam, the 13-week-old cub received his second canine distemper vaccine and was very tough—he didn’t move or vocalize at all at the prick of the needle. At 3 months old, he weighed 10.4 pounds (4.72 kilograms), measured 22 inches long (56 centimeters).

Month 4 | New Name, New Attitude

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. In an exciting new development, Mei Xiang took Xiao Qi Ji on a “field trip” to the outdoor patio of their enclosure. From this space, he observed keepers working and peeked into Tian Tian’s enclosure. In one instance, Xiao Qi Ji was within Tian Tian’s sightlines, but dad was so focused on whether the keepers had food that he didn’t notice his son!

The patio floor is not as smooth as the floors of their indoor enclosure, so the cub’s claws and feet were able to get good traction. On Nov. 24, keepers observed Xiao Qi Ji “catapult” himself forward all on his own.

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.

With age came the sassy side of Xiao Qi Ji. Around 6:30 a.m. Dec. 16, he and Mei Xiang were spending time in their den. While Xiao Qi Ji rested on the floor, Mei Xiang rearranged her nest and played with some pieces of bamboo. This went on for several minutes, when suddenly our little cub let out a loud and feisty bark! Mei Xiang jumped and was a bit startled by her son’s outburst. It seemed that the noise from her rustling, or perhaps the bamboo moving around him, disturbed his sleep. After a few minutes of nest building and eating, Mei Xiang picked up Xiao Qi Ji and tended to him.

As 2020 drew to a close, Xiao Qi Ji’s teeth were coming in nicely—he had 4 canines, some incisors and a few others were starting to erupt. A checkup revealed that the cub weighed 14.5 pounds (6.6 kilograms).

Month 5 | A Playful Panda Cub

At the dawn of the new year, Xiao Qi Ji took on new challenges, like climbing up the rockwork in his indoor habitat. Personality-wise, Xiao Qi Ji seems to take after his mother. Like Mei Xiang, he is careful and cautious when it comes to exploring his environment. He is very deliberate about the paths he takes when traveling up or down the rockwork—more so than siblings Tai Shan, Bao Bao or Bei Bei were.

In January, the 4-month-old cub’s interest in his surroundings really took off. While Mei Xiang ate, Xiao Qi Ji often sat right by her side. As she discarded bamboo, he gathered the pieces in his arms, rolled around and playfully gnawed on them. 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. He seemed to explore the world with his mouth. He nibbled on everything from his paws and enrichment toys to Mei Xiang’s ears. Xiao Qi Ji often tried to initiate a play session with a few not-so-ferocious bites. After Mei Xiang shifted outside in the morning, he emerged from the den to “supervise” the keepers as they cleaned and got the habitat ready for her return. 

The day Xiao Qi Ji turned five 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!

The day before, the sweet cub weighed 20.79 pounds (9.45 kilograms) and was making good gains. Xiao Qi Ji clearly enjoyed this new treat, which is not surprising since both Mei Xiang and 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.

Month 6 | Snow and Summits   

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.

Xiao Qi Ji also tried a new food: bamboo! Keepers saw him munch on some of Mei Xiang’s leftover leaves.

On Sunday, Jan. 31, giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji experienced yet another big milestone—his first encounter with snow! As the flakes were falling, the panda team brought Xiao Qi Ji out of the indoor enclosure to a snow-covered patio behind-the-scenes. He seemed unsure about it at first and stood there for a moment to take it all in. Keeper Stacey Tabellario built him his own panda-cub-sized snowman. He sniffed it before taking a frosty bite. He explored the area for about five minutes before keepers took him back inside. Although his trip was a short one, he seemed to have a good time.

Xiao Qi Ji enjoyed a new treat Feb. 8—a large, nutrient-rich biscuit. Just like his parents, Xiao Qi Ji held the biscuit in his pseudo thumb while he ate. Although his main source of nutrition was Mei Xiang’s milk, he seemed to have enjoyed sampling sweet potato, bamboo and biscuits over the last few weeks. As he neared the end of his fifth month, Xiao Qi Ji tipped the scales at 24.8 pounds (11.29 kilograms).

Just a few days shy of turning 6 months old, Xiao Qi Ji accompanied Mei Xiang into their outdoor habitat for the first time. Much like his siblings Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei were during their first outings, Xiao Qi Ji was cautious yet curious. Mostly, he stayed on the sidewalk at the back of the yard.

Mei Xiang calmly ate while her son ventured onto the grass and pawed at one of their enrichment toys. He walked along the wall of the panda house, sniffed the doors and gates and took in all the new sights and smells. Xiao Qi Ji peeked into the “howdy” window that looks into his father Tian Tian’s yard. He also tested out his climbing skills on the mesh that separates the keeper area from the bears’ yard, but he didn’t get far before he lost his grip and dropped just a few inches to the ground below. Even though Xiao Qi Ji stayed close to “home base,” his first outing in the yard was successful!

This story was featured in the March 2021 issue of National Zoo News. Read previous panda updates here.

Behind these “aww’-inspiring moments, an expert team works tirelessly to provide our panda family with everything they need to thrive, ensuring a bright future for this species. If this cub sparks joy for you, please consider making a donation to the Zoo. On behalf of the animals we care for and protect: thank you! 

Please note that the Zoo is temporarily closed as a public health precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.