WASHINGTON – Zookeepers at the Washington National Zoo are keeping tabs on the furry black-and-white babies after concluding that the venerable giant panda matriarch Mei Xiang is pregnant and could give birth this week. This is welcome news amid a pandemic that has shut down the zoo for months.

“We need it! We totally need this joy,” zoo spokesperson Pamela Baker-Masson said. “We all desperately need these wellness products.”

Although so-called “ghost pregnancies” are common in pandas and other large bears, Baker-Masson said an ultrasound revealed a “really strong and fantastic fetus” that could be delivered this week.

“The image was great. She is absolutely pregnant. But things could still happen, just like in a human pregnancy, ”said Baker-Masson.

The zoo posted a video of the ultrasound on Instagram. “Keep your legs crossed! Posted the zoo, noting that the fetus “kicked and swam in amniotic fluid.”

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The announcement of the pregnancy has already sparked a new wave of panda mania for one of the zoo’s top attractions. Viewing enabled the zoo panda-cam increased by 800%.

Watch live webcams from the National Zoo here.

The zoo reopened on a limited basis on July 24, with restrictions in place to reduce crowds. However, all indoor exhibits, including the very popular Panda House, remained closed. Visitors can still see the outdoor panda enclosure, but Mei mostly stayed inside, making a nest from branches. She can still be seen on the panda cam.

Panda births are inherently delicate, with stillbirths and miscarriages being common. There is also a phenomenon called “resorption” whereby the fetus is unexpectedly reabsorbed into the mother’s body. Baker-Masson said it was rare with such a well-developed fetus.

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Another potential complication is the age of the mother. Mei, at 22, is said to be the oldest giant panda to have given birth successfully in the United States. The oldest in the world gave birth in China at 23.

“Breeding point of view, this is an older bear,” Baker-Masson said. “But she’s been a great mother in the past.”

Mei Xiang successfully gave birth to three cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei. All were transported to China at the age of 4, under the terms of the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government.

Mei was fertilized by artificial insemination, a process that was strongly affected by the precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic. The procedure was carried out shortly after the entire zoo closed on March 14.

Normally, zookeepers would have used a combination of stored frozen semen and fresh semen extracted from male panda Tian Tian. In order to minimize the number of close-up medical procedures performed, zoo staff decided to skip the extraction and inseminate Mei only with thawed sperm from 2016. If successful, this would be the first of its kind in the States. -United to use only frozen semen. .

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