August 23, 2015 / 5:10 AM / 4 years ago

Zoo staff help Washington panda with newborn twins

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - National Zoo staff are helping giant panda Mei Xiang adjust to life with her newborn twins by occasionally switching out one cub and keeping it in an incubator, zoo officials said on Sunday.

Mei Xiang, a star tourist draw, took staff by surprise on Saturday by giving birth to twins about four-and-a-half hours apart. Giant pandas are among the world’s most endangered species and she had been artificially inseminated.

Laurie Thompson, a giant panda biologist, said she and other staff had monitored Mei Xiang to see if she was strong enough to pick up the second cub on her own.

“She was really struggling. She was trying but she wasn’t able to pick up both of the cubs ... At the right moment, we were able to go in and grab one of the cubs and take it out safely when Mei Xiang was not really close to it,” Thompson told reporters.

One cub was placed in an incubator in line with protocol when twins are born.

Dr. Don Neiffer, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, said the first few hours after birth were critical for the panda cubs, especially since they have almost no fur. 

“They are not able to thermo-regulate very well and they need to constantly be receiving some calories and fuel for the furnace,” he said.

To track each cub’s progress, officials are measuring and weighing each cub as they switch them out.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27 with frozen sperm from Hui Hui, a panda in China, and fresh sperm from the National Zoo’s Tian Tian. Zoo veterinarians first detected evidence of a fetus on an ultrasound on Aug. 19.

Mei Xiang previously has given birth to two surviving cubs, Tai Shan in 2005 and Bao Bao in 2013. Bao Bao marked her second birthday on Sunday.

Giant pandas have a very low reproductive rate, particularly in captivity. Their natural home is in a few mountain ranges in central China. There are about 1,600 giant pandas known to be living in the wild and some 300 in captivity.

Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Andrew Roche

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