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Zoo confirms liver problem caused panda cub death

Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON Liver trouble killed a giant panda cub that died suddenly last month less, than a week after its surprise birth at the National Zoo, the institute's chief veterinarian said Thursday.

Suzan Murray said the cub's cause of death was liver necrosis, or the death of liver cells. Murray said at a news conference the cub's lungs were also underdeveloped and likely didn't provide enough oxygen to the liver.

The cub's underdeveloped lungs may have been caused by being born prematurely, Murray said. Zoo scientists are trying to learn more about how common the liver and lung defects are in newborn pandas that don't survive.

The cub, a female, was born Sept. 16.

Zoo officials and panda fans were devastated by its death less than a week later. The birth was a surprise because it hadn't been clear whether Mei Xiang was still fertile.

Don Moore, the zoo's associate director for animal sciences, said panda mother Mei Xiang has been showing less mothering behavior and has stopped cradling a toy in recent days.

In addition, after spending nearly four weeks in her den, she has stopped staying inside and is sleeping out in the panda yard. As a result, zoo keepers on Wednesday cleared out the nest she had built.

The zoo has a five-year agreement with China to keep its two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tain, through 2015. Murray will travel to China this month as the zoo begins planning for the future. They will discuss whether to keep both pandas in Washington or to swap one or both out for the next breeding season.

A decision should be made in November, Moore said.

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