Nature is often awe-inspiring, but the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s 1-month-old giant panda cub is also ‘aww’-inspiring. Over the past month, the newborn’s iconic black markings appeared, it received a clean bill of health from Zoo veterinarians and it is packing on the pounds. Behind the scenes, the Panda Team keeps animal aficionados connected to the cub’s latest developments. Hear the stories behind these precious moments from curator Michael Brown-Palsgrove, assistant curator Laurie Thompson and animal keeper Marty Dearie.
Sept. 9 | 19 Days Old
Our giant panda cub is growing! As our newborn packs on the grams, it is becoming a bit easier to spot on the Panda Cam. Now that the cub’s markings have come in, we have a few weeks to go before the next big milestone. Generally, newborn giant pandas open their eyes between 6 and 8 weeks of age. We can see that its eyes are still sealed when we zoom in with the Panda Cam. Many viewers have noticed that the cub’s tail appears smaller as it grows. At birth, a giant panda’s tail measures about 5 centimeters in length—roughly a quarter of its body size. In time, cubs grow into their tails. Over the next few weeks, we will also see our cub’s fur transform from soft and wispy to wooly and thick.
Twice daily, our team enters the keeper area of Mei Xiang’s den to offer her something to eat and drink. (A safety barrier keeps the human and animal spaces separated.) When they do so, the Panda Cam is temporarily switched to our adult male, Tian Tian. Mei Xiang drinks up to 30 ounces of apple juice diluted with water daily. Monday, Sept. 7, was the first day she showed interest in leafeater biscuits. She munched on a few, along with bamboo. Today, she ate some pear. Mei Xiang remains very focused on caring for her cub, and we continue to be encouraged by the behaviors we see.
Sept. 14 | 24 Days Old
Exciting news! When giant panda Mei Xiang left the den yesterday to eat some bamboo, the panda team was able to retrieve her 3-week-old cub for its first neonatal exam.
During the quick checkup, keepers weighed the active and responsive newborn. It tips the scales at 634.8 grams—just under 1.5 pounds! We are encouraged to see that our young panda appears to be healthy and vibrant.
At a glance, the cub’s wispy fur is growing in nicely. Its bright, pink skin still shows in spots on its muzzle, the top of its head, upper back and tail. In another few weeks, its eyes and ear canals will begin to open.
Sept. 18 | 28 Days Old
It’s hard to believe that our giant panda cub is four weeks old! We are encouraged that the newborn appears to be growing well. This is a sign that it is getting good nutrition from mother Mei Xiang’s milk. The cub is getting so big that it is much more visible on the Panda Cam now (especially when getting fed or groomed).
In the wild, a giant panda mother spends much of her cub’s first month of life feeding, holding and keeping it warm. Mei Xiang has followed a similar pattern of behavior. Now that our cub is growing into the pandas’ signature ‘plump,’ it is starting to regulate its own body temperature. At the same time, we are seeing a steady progression in Mei Xiang’s appetite.
This week, she chose to leave her den up to three times a day and for as long as 18 minutes to eat and drink. Mei Xiang has her pick of two species of bamboo to eat, plus leaf eater biscuits, which are calorically dense. As the cub gets older, she will leave for longer periods. Meantime, our panda team continues to offer Mei Xiang juice and water and her favorite fruit—apples and pears—twice daily from the staff space adjacent to her den. When we do so, the Panda Cam is temporarily switched to our adult male, Tian Tian.
Interestingly, Mei Xiang has followed a similar eating schedule with all of her cubs. With Tai Shan (b. 2005), she ate bamboo for the first time since giving birth on day 16. Following Bao Bao (b. 2013) and Bei Bei’s (b. 2015) births, she took her first taste of bamboo on day 14. And, as we noted with this cub in a previous update, she started consuming bamboo when it was 15 days old.
Sept. 21 | First Veterinary Exam
Our giant panda cub has reached a big milestone—today marks one month since its birth Aug. 21! On Saturday morning, Sept. 19, Mei Xiang placed her cub on the floor of the den and stepped into the adjacent enclosure. This presented the perfect opportunity to conduct another brief exam on the cub.
We closed the door to the den, retrieved the cub and placed it on a soft towel. This time, Zoo veterinarians joined the Panda Team for the exam. The cub weighed 952 grams, or just over two pounds. From nose to tail tip, the cub measured 34 centimeters, or 13.4 inches (its tail accounts for two of those inches).
Veterinarians were also able to take a quick swab of our cub’s cheek for DNA analysis. Outwardly, male and female cubs appear similar at birth, so a genetic test is the most accurate way to determine whether our cub is a male or female. They took the swab to our Center for Conservation Genomics, where Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists will confirm the cub’s sex. We should have an answer in the next few weeks.
Sept. 25 | The Cub’s Growing Girth
When Mei Xiang left her den to grab a bite to eat this morning, we had another opportunity to conduct a brief exam on our 1-month-old giant panda cub. The newborn was quite sleepy when we retrieved it from the den and napped through much of the excitement.
As of this morning, the cub weighed 1,337 grams, or just under three pounds. From nose to tail tip, it measured 35.5 centimeters, or 13.9 inches (its tail accounts for two of those inches). For the first time, we had a chance to measure the cub’s abdominal girth as well. It’s back and belly measured 32 centimeters, or 12.5 inches in circumference. Our plump panda cub is almost as round as it is long!
Oct. 2 | Six Weeks Old
Yesterday morning, giant panda Mei Xiang stepped out of the den, and the panda team retrieved her 6-week-old cub for another quick checkup. During last week’s exam, the cub largely napped through the process. That was not the case with this exam—the cub was wide awake, alert and very vocal while we took its measurements! It weighed 1.66 kilograms (3.6 pounds) and measured 14 inches from nose to tail tip. Its abdominal girth remained steady at 12.5 inches.
Just like all babies, giant pandas go through spurts of steadiness and growth. All in all, we are very happy with the progress it is making—it is gaining weight and very active. One new and exciting development is that the cub’s eyes are beginning to open! They will be fully open around 8 weeks of age. Giant pandas’ ear canals typically start to open 31 to 50 days after birth. Around 2 months old, the cub’s ears should be fully open.
UPDATE: The DNA results are in, and our giant panda cub is a male! A painting created by his father, Tian Tian, was used to reveal the sex of the cub to giant panda keepers and fans online. Watch the video!
This story was featured in the October 2020 issue of National Zoo News. We are thrilled to share our precious giant panda cub's story with you. If these moments have made you smile, please consider making a donation to the Giant Panda Conservation Fund. Our efforts to save this species from extinction are made possible through contributions from supporters like you. On behalf of the giant pandas we care for: thank you!