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Bao Bao the Panda Cub Taking a Big Step

Mar 03, 2015 03:09 PM EST
Bao Bao panda cub
Pictured: Bao Bao is seen in the panda exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington August 23, 2014.
(Photo : Reuters)

Bao Bao the panda cub, the cute and cuddly star of a recent YouTube video, is taking her first big steps - towards independence, that is.

In what can only be described as bittersweet, the 18-month-old panda cub is leaving her mother Mei Xiang to live on her own. As humans, it may be hard to understand how a mother could let her baby go off on her own at so young an age, but for pandas, who usually leave their mothers for good at about two years old, this is normal.

So the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington is taking a cue from nature and allowing this mother-daughter relationship to take the next step.

"This is a natural thing. Mama's not sad at all. It may be more of an adjustment for the cubs but we do know they get past it very quickly," Nicole MacCorkle, a panda keeper at the zoo, told CBS News.

In fact, both Bao Bao and Mei Xiang have been giving zookeepers signs for some time now that their relationship is moving to the next level.

"They spend less time together. They have less interest in each other. And it's a little bit sad to us. But we watch Mei Xiang, and when Bao Bao comes over to nurse, Mei will push her away," National Zoo senior curator Brandie Smith said. "She's like, 'you're a grownup now. Go, you know, eat your own bamboo.'"

Eating solid food, such as bamboo and sweet potatoes, is even proof that Bao Bao is independent enough to survive on her own without mommy.

So taking the hint, last week zookeepers allowed the pandas to spend nights together, but kept them apart during the day - Bao Bao in one yard, mom in another - to ease the transition.

Bao Bao's life has been documented on the zoo's Panda Cam since the day she was born, fans watching her learn to crawl, get checkups and play outside in the snow, and so onlookers may find the situation more heartbreaking than Mei Xiang.

"The world changes when you are a parent and you see things differently. But we're parents of little humans and Mei Xiang is a parent of a little panda and this is the stage where the little panda needs to go and be a big panda," MacCorkle said.

"We are taking our cues from Mei. Mei is telling us that it's time for Bao Bao to go. And we're letting that happen. We're helping her set Bao Bao off on her own," Smith added.

Bao Bao and Mei Xiang will continue to live at Smithsonian's National Zoo - separated, of course - until the cub turns four years old. Then, Bao Bao will travel to China where, per an agreement with the Chinese government, she will eventually have cubs of her own.

Giant pandas live strictly in remote, mountainous regions in central China, according to National Geographic. They typically spend half of the day eating - their diet requires that pandas eat a whopping 28 pounds of bamboo per day.

Sadly, giant pandas are an endangered species, according to the IUCN Red List. With only about 1,000 of these 300-pound mammals left in the wild and another 100 in captivity due to habitat loss, they are the rarest member of the bear family.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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