Twin Pandas Born at the National Zoo

Photo: Becky Malinsky/Smithsonian National Zoo

The National Zoo has announced that its female giant panda, Mei Xiang, gave birth to twin cubs a few hours apart last night, and so far both mother and babies appear healthy, according to the Washington Post. If the cubs survive, they will be the third and fourth offspring for Mei Xiang. She had another cub, Tai Shan, in 2005 (subsequently returned to China in 2010), and her other cub, Bao Bao, is celebrating his second birthday today at the National Zoo.

Panda cubs are extremely fragile after they’re born, being blind, hairless, and roughly one nine-hundredth the size of an adult panda. The National Zoo’s “Panda team” of veterinarians, zookeepers, and scientists will now follow a special protocol for rearing the twins, alternating the individual cubs between being cared for by their mother and by zoo personnel using an incubator. Regardless, the family will be allowed time to bond, though the alternating protocol essentially tricks the mother into caring for two cubs, whereas in the wild a panda mother would typically lack the energy to care for both, abandoning one to die. Mom and cubs will be monitored 24/7 via Panda Cam from now on, which is also the only way the public will be able to see the cubs for several months. (There’s an app for watching them, too.)

Illustrating the risks faced by zoo animals bred in captivity — and especially newborn pandas — Mei Xiang has already lost two babies while living at the zoo: one to stillbirth and another that died only six days after being born due to a birth defect. A total of six baby cubs have died at the zoo since the 1980s. Breeding giant pandas in captivity is a complicated and delicate process as well. According to The Atlantic, natural breeding usually fails, due to both the mating inexperience of the captive animals as well as the extremely limited annual estrous cycle of female pandas. Indeed, both of Mei Xiang’s previous cubs were the product of sophisticated artificial insemination techniques, and the new twins may be as well, as she was artificially inseminated again this past April. 

Giant pandas have been a popular fixture at the National Zoo for 43 years, after the first pair of the animals arrived there as a gift from China following President Nixon’s historic trip to the country in 1972. All of the giant pandas at the National Zoo, as well as those at three other zoos around the country, are on loan from China.

View the gallery of the newborn cubs here, and watch videos of them being born, as well as an exam of the first cub, below:

Twin Pandas Born at the National Zoo