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Posted at 03:47 PM ET, 05/17/2011

Panda preggers?

Female panda Mei Xiang snacks on bamboo in 2001. (By Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
On the same day that Ming Ming, the world’s oldest panda, died at age 34 in a Chinese zoo, scientists at the National Zoo in Washington detected a rise in hormone levels in the female giant panda, Mei Xiang.

That could mean she’s “with cub” or it could mean, as it so often has for pandas in captivity, that she has a false pregnancy.

Hormone levels aren’t enough to know if Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) is actually pregnant. Zoo veterinarians have been conducting ultrasounds twice weekly, but they have not detected a fetus.

Panda fetuses don’t start developing until the final weeks of the 160-day gestation period.

That’s only one reason pandas find it so hard to have offspring. When scientists step in to help things along, they only have about 48 hours once a year, when the female is in heat, to try to achieve pregnancy.

A Chinese panda breeding expert helped zoo scientists artificially inseminate Mei Xiang in January. She and male panda Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN) had attempted to mate but weren’t successful.

Their only cub, Tai Shan (tie-SHON), was born July 9, 2005.

By  |  03:47 PM ET, 05/17/2011

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