National Zoo panda cub dies

26 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

National Zoo says smaller of twin panda cubs has died.

The zoo’s adult female panda Mei Xiang gave birth to the first cub Saturday at 5:35 p.m. and a second cub about five hours later. The birth of tiny twin pandas to the National Zoo’s Mei Xiang was cause for national celebration this weekend (we are, after all, are the country that practically went into a state of panic when the zoos’s panda cam went offline during the shutdown of 2013).

According to the zoo, bear cubs have the smallest infant-to-mother size ration of any placental mammals at about 1 to 700. “We are sad to report that the smaller of the two panda cubs has died. The zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from China following President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the country.

Since Monday, Mei has refused to care for the tinier twin, despite zookeepers’ efforts to foster maternal affection for both her babies during the most precarious period of their infancy. Twin pandas are rarely born at American zoos (this is only the third in U.S. history) but in the wild, behavior like Mei’s is actually quite common. If the panda cubs survive, they are likely to boost visitor numbers and merchandising sales as they (eventually) grow into cute, playful balls of fur.

But when it becomes evident that one cub is developing faster than the other, panda mothers will often focus their attention on the stronger infant. “This is the dark side of pandas, that they have two and throw one away,” Scott Forbes, a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg, told the New York Times in 2006. Their second cub, Bao Bao, still lives at the National Zoo. “If the National Zoo really cares about pandas—and not just creating drama and drumming up ticket sales—it should stop treating pandas like breeding machines and leave the care of these cubs to the real expert: their mother.” Keepers at the zoo say they will be monitoring the new babies very closely. But it’s now believed that giant panda mothers like Mei Xiang are more Sophie Zawistowska, the William Styron character who was forced to choose which child to send to a Nazi gas chamber, than Margaret White, the crazed mom of Stephen King’s Carrie. The development and destruction of their native habitat, the mountain bamboo forests of western China, have reduced their numbers to just a few thousand.

This Sophie’s Choice-style calculus is by no means limited to pandas — it’s common throughout the animal world, where the whims of nature can be as cruel and unforgiving as those of Styron’s fictional Nazi. Panda cubs are extremely altricial — “a fancy word that means pretty much helpless,” National Zoo scientist Don Moore told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

The worldwide panda population has increased somewhat in recent years, but the panda remains heavily dependent on conservation programs for its survival. They are born exceptionally small (at just 3 ounces, the smaller cub was born weighing 0.07 percent of its mother’s bulk) and totally incapable of fending for themselves. For the first three months after birth, panda mothers do almost nothing other than care for their cubs; an Atlanta Zoo study found that mother pandas spent 80 percent of their time holding their babies. The newborns are so small that they can’t move or hold themselves up; a mother must constantly clutch her cub to her chest in order to allow it to feed.

The adult bears — Mei Xiang, 10, the female, and Tian Tian, 11, the male — arrived from China in December 2000 as part of a research, conservation and breeding program. The practice of bestowing the beasts on other countries is often described as “panda diplomacy,” with the gift of the furry, endangered bear symbolizing the warm, fuzzy feelings between countries. China’s history of giving pandas to foreign dignitaries is a long one: China is thought to have given pandas as a gift to Japan as early as 685, during the Tang Dynasty. But as Mei Xiang demonstrated, those efforts don’t always work. “Immediately a mother panda knows it’s a tough world out there and goes for the survival of the fittest,” biologist Marc Brody, who helps breed pandas in captivity at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, told National Geographic in 2013, the last time Mei gave birth.

Most of these animals are unable to hunt or forage while caring for their newborns, and like panda moms, are close to starving while their offspring nurse. It turned out that the cubs were sick with a flu that eventually spread to the rest of the bears in the exhibit — it’s possible that the mother somehow knew, and that her behavior was protective. In the early 2000s, the Chinese were charging American zoos a million dollars a year to rent pandas, compared with $250,000 or $500,000 per year in other countries, National Geographic reported. “The Chinese think we’re rich and can do anything we want,” David Towne of the Giant Panda Foundation told the magazine in 2006.

Getting a panda became easier after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, which damaged a facility that had been home to several dozen bears. During gestation, the first offspring to reach a certain size will eat all of their smaller siblings — a practice bluntly termed “adelphophagy,” or, “eating one’s brother.” Sometimes abandoning her children is the best thing an animal mother can do for them. Edinburgh Zoo received its pandas in 2011, followed closely by trade deals that included large contracts for salmon, renewable energy technology and Land Rover vehicles.

In France, China’s panda loan coincided with a $20 billion package of trade deals, including for uranium. “I think they’re capitalizing on an opportunity,” said Buckingham, now a researcher at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. “It wasn’t China that made the West go crazy about pandas.” Still, despite the oft-repeated claim that adult animals will abandon their babies if they smell or sense that a human has touched them, biologists say that it’s actually very difficult to get a mother to give up a child when she doesn’t want to. “In general, wild animals bond with their young and do not quickly abandon them,” Laura Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program at the Humane Society of the United States, told Scientific American in 2007. Nature’s most impressive mother of all is the giant Pacific octopus, who sacrifices her own life to give her 50,000 or so offspring a chance at survival. For months, she’ll carry her thousands of tiny eggs inside her body, then, when the water temperature is right, expel them into the water and knit them into an elaborate curtain, which she hangs from the roof of the underwater cave she has made into a den. Her offspring are a perfect miniature of their mother — 6 millimeters long with tiny tentacles and an instinctive sense of what to do next, according to Krulwich.

Once the last of the eggs has hatched, the mother slowly, achingly puffs out of the cave, sometimes make it only as far as a few feet before she stops breathing and dies.

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