The smaller of the two giant panda cubs born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Aug. 22, died shortly after 2 p.m. today, Aug. 26. The panda team rotated both cubs in the past 24 hours allowing each to benefit from spending time with their mother, Mei Xiang. The smaller cub was with Mei Xiang from about 2 p.m. yesterday, Aug. 25, until this morning. When the panda team swapped the cubs this morning, they assessed the little cub and had concerns because it had not increased in weight, appeared weaker and exhibited possible respiratory issues.
The panda team immediately began taking actions to improve the condition of the smaller cub. They administered antibiotics, respiratory support, formula and fluids.
The Zoo’s pathologists will perform a necropsy (animal autopsy) on the 4-day-old giant cub. A final pathology report will provide more information in the next few weeks. The veterinary and pathology team will continue to work closely during the ongoing histological evaluation.
At the time of death, the cub weighed 79.8 grams, about 2.8 ounces. The mortality rate for panda cubs in their first year in human care is 26 percent for males and 20 percent for females. Note that some early mortality rates may be underestimated.
Giant pandas give birth to twins approximately 50 percent of the time. This is only the third time a giant panda living in the United States has given birth to twins. At the birth of the second cub, Mei Xiang demonstrated that she was challenged to care for both cubs, but she did not indicate a preference for one cub over the other. The collective scientific knowledge about giant panda mothers is that they are best able to care for one cub at a time.
The stereotypical image of the giant panda is of a black and white bear, but that’s not entirely accurate! These images are of Qinling pandas, a subspecies of the giant panda restricted to the Qinling Mountains. Officially named in 2005, this subspecies is recognised by its smaller skull size, larger molars, and of course, its brown colouring. It is also extremely rare; there are likely only 200 to 300 of these bears left in the wild.
According to legend, the panda was once an all-white bear. When a small girl tried to save a panda cub from being attacked by a leopard, the leopard killed the girl instead. Pandas came to her funeral wearing armbands of black ashes. As they wiped their eyes, hugged each other, and covered the ears, they smudged the black ashes.