- - Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Scientists at the National Zoo say giant panda Mei Xiang is experiencing hormone changes and showing increasingly obvious behavioral shifts — indications that she could be pregnant.

The zoo said in a news release Monday that “in the past few days Mei has become much less interested in interacting with her keepers, and she continues to be very sensitive to noise. She chooses to spend most of her time inside sleeping, and has rarely gone outside in the past few days.”

Officials said Mei briefly cradled a toy and has become apathetic toward her favorite snacks. She has also continued building a nest she began in early July, which is consistent with rising hormone levels. Mei was artificially inseminated twice March 30 after natural breeding attempts with the zoo’s male panda, Tian Tian, were unsuccessful.

An ultrasound won’t immediately reveal whether Mei Xiang is pregnant because unborn pandas do not develop into fetuses until a couple of weeks before birth, although the gestation period typically lasts between 95 and 160 days. A fetus should develop in Mei’s uterus within two weeks if she is pregnant, and she would give birth within 30 to 45 days. Veterinarians are conducting ultrasounds regularly as she cooperates, looking for changes and evidence of a fetus.

The zoo doesn’t want to quash excitement, but it’s possible Mei Xiang’s changes are only the effects of a pseudopregnancy.

“Giant pandas and other bears sometimes exhibit all the signs of pregnancy without ever giving birth,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

While crucial to zoo conservation efforts, inducing panda pregnancy is tricky.

Since 2005, Mei has been bred nine times, sometimes with a mate and other times by artificial insemination. Of those, seven attempts did not result in a cub, and an attempt last year resulted in a cub that died about a week after its birth. Only one attempt was successful. In 2005, Mei gave birth to a male cub named Tai Shan. The panda became a D.C. celebrity and lived at the zoo for five years before he was moved to a new home in China in 2010.

“Everybody celebrates birth around here,” Ms. Baker-Masson said. “This area, especially D.C., knows the kind of commitment we have to pandas, both in the work here and the work we do back in China.”

To prevent another cub death like last year, the zoo would follow a series of protocols regarding how officials monitor the cub. Keepers might take the cub from the mother if they see a risk, such as the mother inadvertently rolling onto and crushing it.

The panda house is closed while the keepers watch Mei so that she can have some privacy.

Volunteer panda keepers are observing Mei’s habits and interaction with her surroundings. Zoo spokeswoman Devin Murphy said that every five minutes keepers record things like what the panda ate, what she picked up or played with, if she cradled something and how she reacted to noise. They create a chart of each behavior and the accompanying time.

The zoo does not plan any significant alterations to the panda house in the near future since the cub would stay indoors for a while after birth.

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