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Giant Panda Gives Birth at Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. [Video]

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Aug 24, 2013 05:00 AM EDT
Giant panda
Giant panda has a high diversity in genetic variation, study finds. (Photo : REUTERS/Alfred Cheng Jin)

Giant Panda Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) gave birth to a cub at the Smithsonian's National Zoo August 23 at about 5:32 p.m ET.

The mother began cradling the baby soon after birth. Mei Xiang was closely watched by zookeepers using panda cams and the entire team followed Xiang's progress since her water broke at about 3:36 p.m., according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

                      

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The sex of the cub is yet to be determined, the zoo said. The cub will get a complete health check-up in a few days.

"I'm glued to the new panda cams and thrilled to hear the squeals, which appear healthy, of our newborn cub. Our expansive panda team has worked tirelessly analyzing hormones and behavior since March, and as a result of their expertise and our collaboration with scientists from around the world we are celebrating this birth," said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, in a statement.

Zookeepers had initially tried to naturally mate Mei Xiang with the Zoo's male giant panda, Tian Tian. But, they artificially inseminated the panda March 30 after natural breeding attempts failed. Giant Pandas have a very low reproduction rate as the females are in estrus,( in heat) for only 12 to 25 days each spring. During this brief window, they can mate only within two to seven days. Pandas are usually fertile for just about 24 to 36 hours.

The birth is also special for the zookeepers because of a new test that they had used to predict the birth of the cub. Determining pregnancies in pandas is extremely difficult as they usually have a condition called pseudopregnancy where they display all signs of real pregnancy, Livescience reports.

"The only definitive way to determine if a female is pregnant before she gives birth to a cub is to detect a fetus on an ultrasound. Mei Xiang's last ultrasound was August 5, during which veterinarians saw no evidence of a fetus," the zoo said in a blog.

The test was developed by scientists at Memphis Zoo who measured the levels of hormones in Mei Xiang. The scientists had reported that in case of a true pregnancy, the cub would be delivered in the last week of August otherwise the pseudopregnancy would end by September.

This isn't Mei Xiang's first baby. She gave birth to Tai Shan, July 9, 2005, who now lives at the Panda Base in BiFengxia in Ya'an, China. Her next baby was born on September 16, 2012. This cub died a few days after birth due to liver complications.

Giant pandas are known for their solitary lifestyle. Most individual pandas live in the remote, mountainous regions in central China and about 100 individuals live in zoos. Female giant pandas do give birth to twins occasionally, but don't always take care of both twins and abandon one of them. There has been just one known case of a giant panda giving birth to triplets, which took place at the Wolong Breeding Centre.

Mei Xiang's new baby is the result of conservationists' efforts to save the species from extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, number of Giant Pandas in the wild is increasing, mostly due to conservation efforts from various agencies and the support of the local Chinese government. The last full survey of panda population in the wild that took place in 2004 showed  about 1,600 pandas in the wild.

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