Panda cub that died at U.S. zoo had liver issues
A webcam view inside the National Zoo's panda habitat, where Mei Xiang gave birth to a panda cub Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. / Smithsonian
(AP) The 6-day-old panda cub that died at the National Zoo in Washington had liver abnormalities and fluid in its abdomen, but zoo officials said Monday they do not yet know the cause of death.
The cub, believed to be female, died Sunday morning, less than a week after its birth surprised and delighted zoo officials and visitors. The zoo had all but given up on the panda mother's chances of conceiving.
Four U.S. zoos have pandas, but the bears at the National Zoo are treated like royalty. The zoo was given its first set of pandas in 1972 as a gift from China to commemorate President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the country.
It can be difficult to get the endangered pandas to breed, and even when they give birth, pandas born in captivity have a mortality rate of about 18 percent in their first two weeks, zoo officials said. Only a few thousand giant pandas are believed to remain in the wild, and only a few hundred are in captivity.
A necropsy on the cub will be completed within two weeks, and officials expect to have a definitive answer on the cause of death.
There was no evidence of fluid in the cub's lungs, which would suggest pneumonia, and the cub was not accidentally crushed by its mother, which has happened to other cubs born in captivity.
The fluid in the cub's abdomen was unusual and could have been a symptom of the liver problem, said Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian. The liver, about the size of a kidney bean, was harder than usual and discolored, she said.
There was milk in the cub's gastrointestinal tract, but the initial examination could not determine how well the cub had been nursing, Murray said.
The cub's mother, 14-year-old Mei Xiang, has come out of her den and started eating again and interacting with her keepers, Murray said. The panda slept well Sunday night and has been cradling a plastic toy.
(At left, National Zoo chief veterinarian Dr. Suzan Murray details preliminary results from a necropsy performed on a panda cub that was found dead a week after its birth.)
"We think this is her natural mothering instinct," National Zoo director Dennis Kelly said.
Because Mei Xiang's other cub survived and she appeared to be taking good care of the newborn, zoo officials were cautiously optimistic about the new cub. Kelly said he was not aware of anything that could have been done to improve its chances of survival.
Zoo officials said it was too early to know if they would try to breed Mei Xiang again next year, but the breeding program at the zoo will continue. Mei Xiang had five consecutive pseudopregnancies before giving birth on Sept. 16. A pseudopregnancy occurs when a panda ovulates but does not conceive.
Mei Xiang had been artificially inseminated with sperm from her male partner, Tian Tian. The pair's only cub, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and became the zoo's star attraction before he was returned to China in 2010.
The zoo's first panda couple, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, had five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than a few days.
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