Panda Mei Xiang gives birth to stillborn cub; live cub is healthy

Photo: The Smithsonian's National Zoo

WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - A panda at Washington's National Zoo that has been tending to her squealing newborn cub also gave birth to a stillborn cub Saturday that wasn't fully formed and was never alive outside the womb, a zoo official said.

Mei Xiang gave birth to the motionless cub Saturday night after giving birth to its live twin the night before, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. The mother groomed her stillborn cub for 17 minutes before letting it fall to the floor, she said.

"It was malformed. Most of the malformations were limited to the head region," explained Dr. Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo.

The stillbirth happened 26 hours after the first panda was born.

Mei's surviving cub appears to be robust and fully formed and a healthy shade of pink. The zoo's panda team was able to get the cub for its neonatal exam Sunday. Zoo officials say the cub weighs 137 grams, or 4.8 ounces, and has a steady heartbeat and strong lungs. They say it is both eating and digesting food, all signs pointing to a very healthy cub. The cub's sex or its paternity won't be known for two or three weeks.

"I have nothing but joy that we have one cub that is healthy and doing well," said Dr. Brandie Smith, supervisory biologist.

Watch Mei on the Giant Panda Cam

The live cub was the 15-year-old panda's third. Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub last year that died after just six days. Its lungs hadn't fully developed and likely weren't sending enough oxygen to its liver. Mei Xiang's first cub, a male named Tai Shan, was born in 2005.

An early exam at the zoo is a change from last year, and staff members made several other changes in preparation for another cub. Mei Xiang's den was altered to allow keepers to get closer to her, and the zoo invited a panda expert from China who specializes in newborns to help out. Two of the zoo's panda keepers also recently spent time in China learning more about examining newborns.

Zookeepers made two attempts at examining the cub Saturday, but Mei Xiang was cradling the cub and officials were unable to take it for a closer examination, zoo spokeswoman Baker-Masson said.

Information collected during the exam will serve as a baseline for future exams. And the DNA sample, either from a swab of the cub's mouth or feces, will be used to determine the cub's father. Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated both with sperm from the zoo's male panda, Tian Tian, and sperm from a panda at the San Diego Zoo, Gao Gao.

Visitors to the zoo Saturday said they were excited about another panda cub. Melissa Schmechel, of Alexandria, Va., said she spent about 30 minutes Friday watching the zoo's online panda camera after it was announced on Facebook and Twitter that Mei Xiang had gone into labor. She said she and her family had made plans to visit the zoo last year after the birth of Mei Xiang's second cub and were sad when it died.

"Hopefully this will have a better outcome," she said as her 11-year-old daughter, Laura, hugged a newly purchased stuffed panda.