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Please note the update from the National Zoo at the bottom of this article.
It is double trouble for the National Zoo. Its adult female panda has given birth to twins.
The cubs arrived about five hours apart. That was on Saturday (Aug. 22). The panda mom is Mei Xiang. Her name is pronounced may-SHONG. She gave birth to the first cub at 5:35 p.m. The second arrived at 10:07 p.m. If the cubs survive, they would be the 17-year-old panda's third and fourth surviving offspring.
Mei Xiang's first cub was Tai Shan. He was born in 2005. He was returned to China in 2010. Mei Xiang's second cub is Bao Bao. She turned 2 years old Sunday. She still lives at the National Zoo. It is in Washington.
The new cubs mean that the zoo has five pandas in residence. That is the first time this has happened. Bao Bao and Mei Xiang live at the zoo. So do the new cubs. The zoo is also home to an adult male panda. His name is Tian Tian. The zoo has never had more than three pandas at one time.
The zoo director is Dennis Kelly. He said following the first cub's birth that he was "so happy, so pleased, so excited." The zoo's chief vet is Don Neiffer. He was also asked about the chance of a second cub. Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao and a second cub in 2013. But sadly, the second was stillborn. Neiffer talked about the chance of a second cub this time around. He said that he saw something during an ultrasound earlier in the week. He said he saw "two areas that made me excited."
Keepers removed one of the cubs. The zoo said that was after the second cub was born. It was moved it to an incubator. The zoo says it will swap the cubs. That will allow one the time to nurse and spend time with Mei Xiang. Meanwhile, the other will be bottle-fed. The zoo said it could not confirm whether the cub that was removed was the first or second born. It says pandas give birth to twins about 50 percent of the time. This is only the third time a giant panda living in the United States has given birth to twins.
Keepers will be watching the newest cubs closely. The newborns are pink. They are hairless. They are also blind right now. Each weighs three to five ounces. They are about the size of a stick of butter.
Kelly called it a "very fragile time."
"We are very excited. But we are very cautious," he said. He said that before the second cub's birth. He noted that Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub in 2012. It died after just six days. Its lungs had not fully formed.
Neiffer said the first cub had shown "all signs of being healthy and happy." Keepers have heard it squeal and grunt. The zoo said on Twitter that the second cub also looks healthy.
Panda fans should not expect to see the cubs in person for a while. That is even if the new cubs are physically fit. It was 5 months after Bao Bao was born before she made her public debut. Fans who want to see the newest pandas will have to try to catch a glimpse of them on the zoo's online panda cameras. The zoo's camera-viewing site can host about 850 viewers at a time. Spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says the site has been overloaded. But fans can also download a zoo app.
The public also will not learn whether the cubs are male or female right away. Or if Tian Tian is the cubs' father. He is the zoo's male panda. The father of Mei Xiang's cubs is either Tian Tian or a panda named Hui Hui. He is from Wolong, China.
The zoo will use saliva from the cubs' mouths to figure out their gender and paternity. That is according to Laurie Thompson. She is a giant panda biologist. She works at the National Zoo.
The National Zoo is one of only four zoos in the country to have pandas. The animals are on loan from China. The cubs are the only ones born in the United States this year. Pandas also have a history at the Washington zoo. That makes them closely watched.
The zoo's first pair of pandas were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. They were a gift from China. They came here following President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to the country. The pair had five cubs while living at the zoo. But none survived.
The zoo's current pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are the parents of both Bao Bao and Tai Shan. The parents arrived in 2000. The pandas belong to China. So do any cubs they have.
The cubs' birth was not the only event being celebrated at the zoo. It was Bao Bao's second birthday. She got a cake made out of frozen fruits and vegetables. It had the number "2'' on top. She will stay at the zoo until she is four years old. Then she will return to China.
Update from Smithsonian National Zoo (August 26th):
The smaller of the two giant panda cubs born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo has died.
Giant pandas give birth to twins about 50 percent of the time. This is only the third time a giant panda living in the United States has given birth to twins.
At the birth of the second cub on August 22, Mei Xiang showed that she was having a hard time taking care of both cubs. What groups of scientists say about giant panda mothers is that they are best able to care for one cub at a time.
The zoo has a set of rules they follow to take care of cubs. The panda team alternately swapped the cubs. That was to allow one to nurse and spend time with Mei Xiang while the other was bottle fed and kept warm in an incubator. The primary goal for the panda team was for both cubs to have the benefit of nursing and spending time with their mother.
The panda team continues to watch Mei Xiang and the larger cub via the Panda Cams. They are encouraged that this cub appears to be strong and healthy. And that it is behaving normally.