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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 Saturday (Aug. 22). Panda mom Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) 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 cubs.
Mei Xiang's first cub, Tai Shan, was born in 2005. That panda was returned to China in 2010. Mei Xiang's second cub, Bao Bao, turned 2 years old Sunday. She still lives at the zoo, which is in Washington.
The new additions mean that for the first time, the zoo has five pandas in residence. In addition to Bao Bao, Mei Xiang and the new cubs, the zoo is also home to an adult male panda. His name is Tian Tian. In the past, the zoo has never had more than three pandas at one time.
Zoo director Dennis Kelly said following the first cub's birth that he was "so happy, so pleased, so excited." The zoo's chief veterinarian Don Neiffer was also asked about the possibility of a second cub. In 2013, when Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao, she also gave birth to a stillborn cub. Asked about the possibility of a second cub this time around, Neiffer said that during an ultrasound earlier in the week, he did see "two areas that made me excited."
The zoo says after the second cub was born, keepers removed one of the cubs and moved it to an incubator. The zoo says it will alternately swap the cubs. That will allow one the time to nurse and spend time with Mei Xiang while the other is 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, but 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, hairless and blind. Each weighs three to five ounces. They are about the size of a stick of butter.
Kelly, the zoo director, called it a "very fragile time."
"We are very excited. But we are very cautious," he said before the second cub's birth. He noted that in 2012, Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub. It died after just six days. Its lungs had not fully developed.
Still, Neiffer, the zoo's chief veterinarian, 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 appeared healthy.
Even if the new cubs are physically fit, panda fans should not expect to see them in person for a while. After Bao Bao was born in 2013, it was about 5 months 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. Though the zoo's camera-viewing site can host about 850 viewers at a time, spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says the site has been overloaded with people trying to watch. Fans can also download a zoo app to view the cameras.
The public also will not learn immediately whether the cubs are male or female. Or whether the zoo's male panda, Tian Tian, is the cub's father. Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated with sperm from Tian Tian and a panda named Hui Hui from Wolong, China. He was determined to be one of the best genetic matches.
The zoo will use saliva from the cubs' mouths to determine gender and paternity, said Laurie Thompson, a giant panda biologist at the zoo.
The National Zoo is one of only four zoos nationwide 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 National Zoo that makes them closely watched.
The zoo's first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from China. They arrived 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 They arrived in 2000. The pandas belong to China as do any cubs they have.
The cubs' birth wasn't the only event being celebrated at the zoo. For Bao Bao's second birthday, she received 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 difficulty caring for both cubs. The collective scientific knowledge about giant panda mothers is that they are best able to care for one cub at a time.
The zoo has a guidline they follow. The panda team alternately swapped the cubs, allowing 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 monitor Mei Xiang and the larger cub via the Panda Cams. They are encouraged that this cub appears to be strong and robust, and that it is behaving normally.