National Zoo keepers 'ecstatic' as surviving panda cub grows

A week after twin giant panda cubs were born in the US National Zoo, one cub has died but the other is growing healthily. Researchers believe his birth will help the future insemination of giant pandas.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, speaks about the death of one of the new panda cubs during a news conference at the Zoo in Washington, Wednesday.

The surviving giant panda cub born in the US National Zoo last Saturday is a boy and was fathered by the zoo’s male panda, according to zoo officials.

In a news conference on Friday zoo officials announced that the cub is healthy and putting on weight, including a 16 percent weight gain over 42 hours. The cub weighed 5.5 ounces early on Friday, officials said. 

“We’re ecstatic about that,” said Robert Fleischer, head of the zoo’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, at the news conference, Reuters reports.

The cub was born to Mei Xiang and sired by Tian Tian. The female giant panda was artificially inseminated in April using sperm from Tian Tian and from Hui Hui, a giant panda in Wolong, China.

The cub’s father was identified using gene sequencing, according to a press release from the zoo, and Dr. Fleischer said in the release that the techniques used to inseminate the pandas and determine their pedigree will be crucial going forward in maintaining the population of the threatened species.

“Determining the pedigree relationships of a cub is a key aspect of helping to maintain a genetically diverse population,” he said. “Our ability to assess the cub’s lineage will help our colleagues ensure that he finds a suitable mate.”

Giant pandas, which are native to China, are among the world’s most endangered species. There are about 300 giant pandas in captivity and roughly 1,600 in the wild. They also have a very low reproductive rate, especially in captivity.

The cub, which has not yet been named, was born with a fraternal twin. The twin died on Wednesday of pneumonia likely caused by inhaling food, the zoo said. The mortality rate for panda cubs in their first year of human care is 26 percent for males and 20 percent for females, the zoo said on Wednesday.

Mei Xiang has previously given birth to two surviving cubs, Tai Shan in 2005 and Bao Bao in 2013.

The giant panda habitat in the zoo has been closed to the public since Aug. 20. It will remain closed to create a quiet area for the pandas, the zoo said, and the new cub will be kept out of public view until January.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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