Zookeep­ers op­ti­mistic about chances for twin pan­das

The China Post - - LIFE GUIDE POST -

In more than three decades of try­ing to breed pan­das at the U.S. Na­tional Zoo, there’s been plenty of heart­break. More cubs born in Washington, D.C. have died than sur­vived, and news of a birth has of­ten been greeted war­ily.

But on Sun­day, zoo of­fi­cials were nearly giddy. They don’t just have an ap­par­ently healthy pair of twins, born Satur­day night to panda mom Mei Xiang. They have a tem­plate to fol­low that gives the cubs a strong chance of sur­vival.

Pan­das won’t usu­ally nurse twins if left to their own de­vices. They’ll care for one and al­low the other to die. But in the past decade, Chi­nese breed­ers have come up with a sys­tem: Ev­ery sev­eral hours, they swap out the cubs, giv­ing each one the crit­i­cal time it needs to nurse and bond with its mother. Mean­while, the other one is kept in an in­cu­ba­tor.

Panda keep­ers at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Zoo will con­tinue per­form­ing these del­i­cate swaps as long as it’s needed and as long as Mei Xiang lets them. By late Sun­day af­ter­noon, the twins had traded places three times with­out in­ci­dent, with Mei Xiang cradling them in turn.

“If she gets ag­gres­sive to­ward us, we’re not go­ing to get that close,” gi­ant panda bi­ol­o­gist Lau­rie Thompson said Sun­day.

The swap­ping tech­nique helped twin pan­das born two years ago at Zoo At­lanta to sur­vive. That was the sec­ond set of panda twins born in the United States. The first, born at the Na­tional Zoo in 1987, both died within days.

Sci­en­tists in China have learned much more about panda breed­ing since then. Two decades ago, the sur­vival rate for panda cubs was un­der 20 per­cent. Now, it’s more than 80 per­cent, zoo di­rec­tor Dennis Kelly said.

“We’ve all been in­volved in events that don’t go so well, so we are ec­static that things are go­ing great,” said Don Neif­fer, the zoo’s chief vet­eri­nar­ian.

Kelly doesn’t ex­pect in­ter­est in the slow-mov­ing, cud­dly look­ing bears to sub­side even if suc­cess­ful breed­ing be­comes rou­tine.

“The birth of an an­i­mal like a gi­ant panda or a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Su­ma­tran tiger is al­ways spe­cial,” Kelly said.

Nurs­ing twins doesn’t ap­pear to come nat­u­rally to pan­das, which are en­dan­gered, with roughly 1,800 liv­ing in the wild and 350 in cap­tiv­ity.

“It’s very rare, ob­vi­ously, for them to man­age two cubs. If she were able to do it, we would cer­tainly let her,” Thompson said. “She couldn’t fig­ure out how to hold both of them. She couldn’t get ahold of one and have the other one un­der her arm and pick it up at the same time. She just kept fum­bling with them.”

The cubs have squealed loudly when taken away from Mei Xiang — one of sev­eral signs that they are strong and healthy. Although one weighed in at roughly 113 grams and the other was just 85.05 grams at birth, both are con­sid­ered within the healthy weight range. They are blind, and pink in color, with wispy white fur.

The sec­ond cub was given a serum drawn pre­vi­ously from Mei Xiang’s blood be­cause it hadn’t got­ten a chance to nurse. Keep­ers are pre­pared to bot­tle-feed the cubs if nec­es­sary, but they won’t do it un­less one of the pan­das is un­der­weight or has other health prob­lems.

Mei Xiang has given birth to two sur­viv­ing cubs: Tai Shan, a male born in 2005, and Bao Bao, who turned 2 on Sun­day and put on a show for hun­dreds of deliri­ous panda watch­ers as she de­voured her “birth­day cake”: a frozen con­coc­tion made with honey, ap­ples, car­rots and bam­boo.

Ling-Ling and Hs­ing-Hs­ing, the panda pair lent to the United States by the main­land China author­i­ties af­ter Richard Nixon’s his­toric visit in 1972, suc­cess­fully mated five times, but none of the cubs lived longer than a few days.

Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub in 2012 that died af­ter six days.

The new ad­di­tions mean that for the first time the zoo has five pan­das in res­i­dence. In ad­di­tion to Bao Bao, Mei Xiang and the new cubs, the zoo is also home to an adult male panda named Tian Tian. In the past, the zoo has never had more than three pan­das at one time.

Tian Tian is the fa­ther of Mei Xiang’s pre­vi­ous cubs. This time, she was ar­ti­fi­cially in­sem­i­nated with se­men from Tian Tian and another panda in China that was de­ter­mined to be a good ge­netic match. If that panda turns out to be the fa­ther of one or both cubs, it would ben­e­fit the species’ ge­netic di­ver­sity, zoo of­fi­cials said.

There’s no timetable for per­form­ing ge­netic test­ing, and zoo of­fi­cials said it will be three to four weeks be­fore their gen­ders are known. The cubs won’t be named un­til they are 100 days old, per Chi­nese tra­di­tion.

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