WASHINGTON — Zookeepers at Washington’s National Zoo are on furry black-and-white baby watch after concluding that venerable giant panda matriarch Mei Ziang is pregnant and could give birth this week. It’s a welcome bit of good news amid a pandemic that kept the zoo shuttered for months.
“We need this! We totally need this joy,” said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. “We are all in desperate need of these feel-goods.”
Although so-called “phantom pregnancies” are common with pandas and other large bears, Baker-Masson said an ultrasound scan revealed a “really strong-looking, fantastic fetus” that could be delivered this week.
“The image was great. She is absolutely pregnant. But things could still happen, just like in a human pregnancy,” Baker-Masson said.
The zoo posted a video from the ultrasound on Instagram. “Keep your paws crossed!” the zoo posted, reporting that the fetus was “kicking and swimming in the amniotic fluid.”
The announcement of the pregnancy has already touched off a fresh round of panda-mania for one of the zoo’s feature attractions. Viewership on the zoo’s panda-cam has increased 800%.
The zoo reopened on a limited basis July 24, with restrictions in place to keep the crowds down. However, all indoor exhibits, including the extremely popular panda house, have remained closed. Visitors can still view the outdoor panda enclosure, but Mei has mostly been staying indoors, creating a nest out of branches. She can still be viewed on the panda cam.
Panda births are inherently tricky, with stillbirths and miscarriages happening frequently. There is also a phenomenon called “resorption” wherebyby the fetus is unexpectedly absorbed back into the mother’s body. Baker-Masson said that is rare with a fetus this well-developed.
Another potential complication is the age of the mother. Mei, at 22, would be the oldest giant panda to successfully give birth in the United States. The oldest in the world gave birth in China at age 23.
“Reproductively speaking, she is an older bear,” Baker-Masson said. “But she has been a great mother in the past.”
Mei Xiang has successfully given birth to three cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei. All were transported to China at age 4, under terms of the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government.
Mei was impregnated via artificial insemination, a process which was heavily affected by precautions over the COVID-19 pandemic. The procedure was conducted shortly after the entire zoo shut down on March 14.
Normally, zookeepers would have used a combination of stored frozen sperm and fresh semen extracted from male panda Tian Tian. In order to minimize the number of close-quarters medical procedures conducted, zoo staff decided to skip the extraction and inseminate Mei only with thawed out semen from 2016. If successful, it would be the first of its kind in the U.S. using only frozen sperm.