If Washington, D.C. isn't obsessed with politics, it's pandas. The Smithsonian's National Zoological Park announced earlier today that the female giant panda Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) is exhibiting signs that she may be pregnant again. In a press release today, the Smithsonian announced the giant panda's urine showed higher levels of progesterone, an indication that she may be carrying a cub. Mei-Xiang was inseminated with sperm from her mate Tian Tian in January.
"We have now entered a window of 40 to 50 days which will dictate whether a cub will be born. We have the nursery ready," said Brandie Smith, senior curator at the National Zoo. The zoo has a web cam trained on Mei Xiang so everyone can get into the act of observing the potentially pregnant panda.
Mei Xiang gave birth to her only cub, Tai Shan, in 2005, creating panda-monium in the Nation's capital. Before Tia Shan was born, the National Zoo had tried for three decades with another pair of Giant Pandas. They had five cubs but none lived for more than a few days.
Smith explains that it's very difficult for Giant Pandas to get pregnant. Females only ovulate once a year and are fertile for a small window of two days a year. Mei-Xiang and Tian-Tian are also a little bit romantically challenged.
"Sometimes they can't coordinate the appropriate parts," explains Smith. That's why they have a team that oversees the artificial insemination. Smith said this time all went extremely well. With the exciting news of the higher hormone levels, Smith and her colleagues have started training Mei-Xiang, reminding her what it's like to have a baby in captivity.
A panda cub is usually the size of a stick of butter and veterinarians at the zoo will want to check the baby and make sure it's healthy. It might be weeks before curators are able to get close enough to the cub, but will intervene if something goes wrong. Ideally, they will want to weigh it and observe its vital signs. That means Mei-Xiang will have to get used to her baby being taken away and returned, usually in a short amount of time.
"What we do now is we take things of value to her like her food. We take away a pear or an apple, and give it back to her so she understands we can take things and give it back. She will get used to us taking and returning things of value," says Smith. "She is an excellent mother so we hope we won't have to do anything to raise the cub." Mei Xiang's 6-year-old male cub Tai-Shan resides in China but was an independent adult when they were separated.
"In case she rejects the cub, we are ready to provide some mothering,' Smith said, explaining there is a Plan B. "Our goal is that she will raise that cub and we have every expectation she will do that."
Zoo volunteers are preparing to set up their around-the-clock pregnancy watch. They will closely watch her seven days a week, 24 hours a day and fill out data sheets with their observations.
"Our volunteers are so fantastic," Smith said, explaining that they will study the panda's behavior, observing if she is collecting extra bamboo to make a nest. "If she starts making a nest or exhibits unusual behavior, they will alert us."
Smith is cautiously optimistic since she has been through this many times. Mei Xiang has a history of false pregnancies, fairly fairly common in giant pandas. But for now, as long as the hormones continue to rise, so will the hope.