The week-old giant panda cub that died at the National Zoo had a hard, discolored liver, and fluid floating freely in its abdomen, officials said Monday, conditions that might have contributed to its sudden death — but the exact cause can't be confirmed for several weeks.
At first glance, the post-mortem observations on the 4-ounce cub told animal experts much about the infant's short life. It was female with a beautiful white and black coat of fur growing in and milk in her belly, indicating mother giant panda Mei Xiang had been nursing the tiny animal.
Zoo officials are waiting for more test results about what caused the beloved cub to die, not only for closure, but also to aid in their efforts to better understand and protect the endangered species.
"We continue to mourn the loss of this cub," National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said. "There's great sadness among the staff ... but we can learn from this tragedy and, hopefully, gain a better understanding of panda reproduction."
The cub, only a week old, died late Sunday morning after people monitoring Mei Xiang and her newborn heard a distress honk from the mother. Zoo personnel were able to extract the cub after luring Mei Xiang away from the body. They attempted CPR on the creature, which weighed as much as a tomato.
"There's nothing to suggest we would do anything differently at this point," Mr. Kelly said.
A study of the small cub's body immediately began, but a full report of the necropsy — or inspection of each organ — and cellular-level observations are due in roughly two weeks, said Dr. Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo.
What the early report indicates, Dr. Murray said, is that there was an "unusual finding" of free-flowing fluid in the cub's abdomen, and her liver "felt a bit hard in places and the color was not uniform."
Dr. Murray said it's normal for an adult panda to have this fluid, but not a cub. There are several reasons this fluid could be present, but she did not elaborate on what they are.
"It's hard to find the silver lining, but there's so much we can learn about what's normal and what isn't normal," she said.
The liver's discolored appearance could end up looking normal under a microscope, but its firm feel, Dr. Murray said, "could suggest a liver component to the cub's death."
One question doctors were able to answer is that the cub's death was not caused by Mei Xiang accidentally crushing her.
Dr. Murray said the cub's body had no external signs of trauma, supporting the zoo staff's initial comments last week that Mei Xiang was "a very good mother, very gentle."
Mei Xiang's slept through the night Sunday and has begun eating and drinking again, Mr. Kelly said. On Monday, she cooperated with zoo trainers when she had her blood drawn.
"The fact she is coming out and eating suggests a return to normality," Dr. Murray said. Mei Xiang is also cuddling a hard rubber toy — the same one she carried with her before and during the cub's birth — but it was not necessarily a type of mourning.
This is the first loss of a cub for Mei Xiang, who gave birth to her first cub Tai Shan in July 2005. Animal keepers had tried unsuccessfully since 2006 to impregnate Mei Xiang. The giant panda has had five consecutive false pregnancies since 2007, and zoo officials pegged her chances of giving birth this year at 10 percent.
Prior to the arrival of Mei Xiang and male giant panda Tian Tian in 2000, the zoo was home to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who produced five cubs. None of them survived.
Dr. Murray said three of those cubs were stillborn, while two died of pneumonia.
A female panda can become pregnant only once a year, so if the zoo decides to try again, attempts would be sometime next year, Mr. Kelly said. Right now, the zoo is focusing on the present.
"We're not really thinking about or discussing the future of those two adult bears," Mr. Kelly said. "We can learn from this tragedy and, hopefully, gain a better understanding of panda reproduction."
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