National Geographic News

The live giant panda cub at the Smithsonian's National Zoo received an exam from animal care staff just minutes after birth.

Photograph by Courtney Janney, Smithsonian National Zoo

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published August 25, 2013

A day after the National Zoo's giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a live cub, she delivered a twin that was stillborn, according to the zoo.

Born Saturday night, the second cub had "developmental abnormalities" and was never alive, the Zoo said on its website. Stillbirth in giant pandas is "extremely rare," the Washington Post reported.

"Keepers watching Mei on the Panda Cam saw her groom it for 17 minutes," the Washington, D.C. zoo said on its website. "When she stopped grooming, it fell from Mei's body onto the floor … It lay motionless and made no sound."

Meanwhile, the frequently squealing firstborn cub had its first neonatal exam Sunday, and the Zoo reports it is "robust, fully formed, and is a bright, healthy shade of pink."

The youngster weighs about 4.8 ounces and seems to have a steady heart rate and well-functioning lungs. It's been feeding from Mei and digesting its food, "all signs that we have a very healthy cub," according to the zoo. (See more panda pictures.)

Twins are common among giant pandas, yet in the wild, one of them will eventually die, noted Marc Brody, senior advisor for conservation and sustainable development at China's Wolong Nature Reserve, which breeds pandas in captivity.

"The mother will choose which is the stronger of the twin, and will focus on that panda and abandon the other," Brody said.

"Immediately a mother panda knows it's a tough world out there and goes for the survival of the fittest."

However, thanks to "tremendous advances and sophistication" in veterinary care, many twins can survive when born in captivity, he noted.

For instance, in captivity, veterinarians never leave the panda mother with both newborns at a time, instead rotating the youngsters so that one's always in an incubator.


Mei Xiang examines her newborn cub at the National Zoo on Friday. The cub's twin was stillborn.

Photograph courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo


Critical Period

The first few days of life for a baby panda are always critical, Brody added.

For one, "a baby panda is one of the most extreme preemies in the world of mammals," which makes it very vulnerable, he said.

At three to five ounces, the hairless, blind newborn panda is 1/900th the size of its mother: In terms of a person, that would be a 120-pound (54-kilogram) woman caring for a two-ounce baby, he said.

According to the National Zoo, the giant panda baby's tiny size makes it one of the smallest mammal newborns relative to its mother's size, trumped only by marsupials.

Unable to move, the infant is reliant on the mother's warmth, milk, and protection to survive. And with such a small baby, it's easy for the mother to accidentally squish her newborn in the nest, he said.

Overall, "the number one issue is observation—constant vigilant observation of the baby panda," Brody said. (Read about the costs of breeding pandas in National Geographic magazine.)

Once a panda is born, zoos have teams of people that watch the mother and cub via 24-hour video surveillance. Captive-breeding facilities also have highly sensitive recording microphones, so "if they hear any duress, they will intervene."

Zoo vets also make sure the baby's eating well and getting enough milk: Panda cubs may nurse for eight to nine months. As the infant gets older, the vets may give it supplemental food if it's growing too slowly.

If all goes well, at about one month of age a baby panda is bigger, stronger, out of immediate danger—and, well, pretty darn cute.

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

Barbara Cullom
Barbara Cullom

Can the deceased cub be considered a "twin"?  If Momma was artificially inseminated with the sperm of 2 different pandas, would not the other cub have been this one's sibling but not twin?  Or am I thinking of fraternal/sororal twins?

Diksha Chhetri
Diksha Chhetri

When you give the babies alternately, ie rotating, isn't there chances the mother will reject the weaker one? Err animals sniff and know right?

Liz O'Hara
Liz O'Hara

Where would the panda normally give birth to their cubs in the wild? In a den?

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore

Thanks for your comment Suzanne. I believe the mother was in one of her dens, where she retreated to build her nest when she started showing signs of pregnancy. It's difficult to see fetuses on ultrasounds because they develop so late—just the last few weeks of gestation—and vets didn't see any evidence of them before Mei gave birth. More info here: 

Suzanne A.
Suzanne A.

Why was the mother in such close quarters, giving birth on a cold, concrete floor? Further, why didn't you know about the other cub? It's called an ultrasound.

Caroline LeBreton
Caroline LeBreton

@Diksha Chhetri Kind of makes sense, how ever still have one cub would still get her attention better than two. But it must be a proven method, otherwise there would be no point in doing so.

Caroline LeBreton
Caroline LeBreton

@Suzanne A. You make it sounds like if giving ultrasounds to giant pandas are easy lol, after all they are technically bears, like all bear species they can resorb one or both fetuses, resulting in no cubs at all.  Not to mention not always accurate, ive had an ultrasound for my dog at 4 weeks, the vet saw 5 puppies, she had eight. It is also harder to see the fetus in animals past certain dates due to fluid increase.

Laurie Cunningham-Edwards
Laurie Cunningham-Edwards

@Caroline LeBreton    I imagine that to do an ultrasound on a bear, you would need to sedate her as well?   On a delicate creature, in a high-risk pregnancy, giving her drugs sounds like a bad idea.   Also, I was wondering if Pandas, and other animals as well, experience as much pain during the birthing process as humans most do?   And congratulations on the birth.  I'm sure this event has been a cause for celebrations for the Zoo and all the people that that help in their care.

Thanks for doing what you do.  


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