September 18, 2012
As was described Monday by both caretakers and the Zoo’s director, Mei Xiang is one great mom. A photo taken from the panda cam shows the mother giant panda tightly embracing her newborn. Juan Rodriguez, one of the caretakers, confirms that the back tail and paws of the baby are visible just below Mei Xiang’s nose.
August 20, 2012
Hormone levels for the female giant panda, Mei Xiang, are up, according to Zoo officials. This could mean a visit from the stork, or it could be another in a series of “pseudopregnancies,” according to the Zoo. Giant pandas are among the rarest animals in the world and the Zoo has worked with researchers to try to effectively breed more.
Mei Xiang has had five pseudopregnancies in a row and last gave birth July 9, 2005. After artificial insemination in April of this year, officials are hoping her only cub will soon have a younger sibling within 40 to 50 days. She has reportedly begun nesting.
Panda keeper Juan Rodriguez says Mei Xiang has been shredding bamboo and collecting it in a corner of her den since the beginning of August. He’s noticed other behavioral changes, including a slowness to react to his calls. “We don’t have a scientific name for it but spaciness is how we describe her behavior.” Eventually, he explains, she will not want to leave her den at all as the birth approaches.
Because of the many false alarms, Rodriguez says, “We try to stay subdued over here.”
The team began doing ultrasounds once a week about a month ago but the soonest an ultrasound can give a definitive answer (and even then, it’s not 100 percent) is two weeks prior to the birth. Visitors to the Zoo can see a bald spot on Mei Xiang’s abdomen from where her fur had to be shaved for the ultrasound. The team has also been tracking her hormones with weekly urine samples that will switch to daily in a few weeks. Rodriguez says they are treating it as a real pregnancy but that the team isn’t celebrating yet.
“That’s the thing with pseudopregnancies and real pregnancies, there’s really no difference,” he explains. The phenomenon of pseudopregnancies is something scientists are still asking questions about. Rodriguez says it could very well be part of their natural history or a result of environmental cues.
Even after hormone levels drop off in a pseudopregnancy, animals can still exhibit changed behaviors. Rodriguez says after last year’s false alarm, Mei Xiang continued nesting for several days.
Rodriguez says, “If she gives birth we’re ready to rock, but we also don’t want to get our hopes up too high.”
This post was updated at 1:23 p.m.
January 11, 2010
With the departure of the panda cub Tai Shan imminent, Zoo officials couldn’t have asked for better news this weekend when the female panda Mei Xiang went into early estrus and was artificially inseminated.
Mei Xiang typically ovulates in the spring, so why January? Perhaps she was hoping to snuggle up to her mate Tian Tian for a little warmth; Washington, D.C. is enduring a very frigid cold snap. (Scientists actually don’t know what triggers ovulation in the giant panda, whether it’s temperature change or the length of daylight or any other environmental factor.)
So on Saturday morning, the pair were permitted a brief opportunity to “snuggle.” But giant panda sex is a very tricky thing, and for it to work, it takes more than two to tango.
Rather, it takes a whole cadre of scientific researchers who, working in collaboration with scientists in China for more than a decade, have created a procedure that allows the pandas a chance to naturally conceive before intervening with artificial insemination. The last time, however, that the planets aligned and a baby panda was born at the Zoo was five years ago when Tai Shan made his dramatic appearance.
Giant pandas ovulate just once a year and mating must occur during the brief two-day period when the female is fertile. The problem is that the male is not always ready and willing. “They were very playful,” explained research veterinarian Pierre Comizzoli, “but nothing was really happening naturally.”
After a few hours, the staff had to intervene. The pair were separated. Both animals were anesthetized and scientists used an exacting procedure, similar to the successful insemination in 2005 that delivered Tai Shan.
But this time, Comizzoli reports a few lucky circumstances might better the chances of a new panda offspring. The first is better hormone information. A large number of volunteers were watching over the female panda for early signs of estrus. They were on hand to observe when the creature urinated. And then the animal keepers rushed into the enclosure to collect it, and then rushed it to the lab for analysis, allowing the researchers to peg a much narrower time frame for ovulation. “We knew almost exactly when ovulation occurred,” said Comizzoli.
The second is more (how to put this delicately?) sperm. By comparison with 2005, Comizzoli says, there was enough sperm available from Tian Tian that the researchers were able to artificially inseminate Mei Xiang, once on Saturday evening, and then again, early on Sunday morning.
So now, just as Tai Shan’s days at the Zoo are drawing to an end, officials are allowing themselves just a glimmer of hope, that maybe, just maybe, a new little cub will replace him. “Every year,” says Comizzoli, “we perform the same procedure, but this time we were able to do two.”
Both pandas are recovered now from the anesthesia and they’re both out moving around their yards. Animals blissfully filling themselves on bamboo. It’s but for us anxious humans to wait and see.
Update: This post has been updated. A correction was made to indicate that it was the animal keepers who collected the urine from the panda animal enclosures and not the volunteers.
October 13, 2009
The Zoo added another adorable critter to its roster: a baby dama gazelle. The calf was born Friday, Oct. 2 and weighed 11 pounds. Her parents are 2-year-old female Adara and 2-year-old male Rajih.
The healthy baby is currently off-display and acclimating herself to the new world with her mother and 1-year-old sister, Fahima. The proud father, however, can be seen at the Zoo with the scimitar-horned oryx. Zoo staffers have seen the calf nurse, groom and run around with her mom and sister. These are all signs of good health, they say.
Although this darling dame is tiny, the dama gazelle is actually the largest of the gazelles and can weigh up to 190 pounds and measure up to 42 inches at the shoulder. In their native habitat, gazelles feast on desert shrubs and acacia; and, during times of drought, rough desert grasses.
The dama gazelle is a critically endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. Experts estimate that fewer than 500 dama gazelles currently live in the wild, and those that do are threatened by hunting and poaching. The gazelle’s range, which used to encompass most of the Saharan region of Africa, has shrunk to contain only a few spots in Mali, Niger and Chad.
But, conservation efforts are helping. The Species Survival, a program started by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, manages 120 dama gazelles in the United States.
To see more pictures of the baby dama gazelle, visit the National Zoo’s Flickr album.
September 2, 2009
For the first time in 30 years, a couple of baby burrowing owls were born at the National Zoo. On August 2, zoo staffers welcomed two wide-eyed chicks born to a 5-year-old male and a 4-year-old female who have lived at the Zoo for three years.
Burrowing owls, so named for their habit of living in underground burrows, are native to North and South America. Zuni Indians, native to western New Mexico, called the owls the “priest of the prairie dogs” because they would take over abandoned prairie dog burrows. They are one of the smallest owl species in North America at 10 inches in length for the average adult. Much of the wild population is migratory, though not much is known about their exact routes. These tiny guys cover the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and from the Canadian prairies into South America as well as Florida and the Caribbean islands. Burrowing owls mainly eat large insects, small rodents and frogs.
When they’re born, the young owls are completely helpless, their eyes are closed and they don’t venture out of the burrow until they’re two weeks old when they can regulate their body temperature. By three weeks, the chicks can be seen joyfully jumping and flapping their wings. At four weeks, they can fly short distances.
The Zoo’s chicks, now just over four weeks old, are currently with their parents in the Zoo’s bird house, which is covered so that the birds can swoop and fly about. Visitors can view the new baby owls there during regular hours. Their habitat, however, is covered with a semi-transparent filter paper to afford the youngsters a little privacy and to give them time to acclimate to their new Zoo home. The paper will slowly be removed as the chicks become more comfortable with their surroundings. The babies currently spend most of their time underground in burrows, but lucky visitors will catch a glimpse of their downy feathers.