It’s a girl! Baby panda’s father also revealed.

September 5, 2013

Two giant panda questions were pleasantly resolved Thursday.

The National Zoo’s newborn cub is a girl.

And her father is Tian Tian, of Washington, and not the guy from the San Diego zoo, Gao Gao.

The answer to a third query was frustrating: Washington pandarazzi will have to wait four months before getting an in-person look at the cub.

The first answers came early in a morning news conference outside the zoo’s giant-panda compound, where Tian Tian lounged about, stripping leaves from bamboo stalks and munching them by the pawful.

It's a girl panda!

“I’m glad to report that the panda cub is a female,” said Jesus Maldonado, a zoo research scientist. “We have another girl in our family.”

He added that genetic tests showed that Tian Tian was the sire of both the surviving cub and its stillborn fraternal twin. The surviving cub was born Aug. 23, and the stillborn cub, which had severe physical deformities, was delivered Aug. 24.

Brandie Smith, the zoo’s senior curator of mammals and giant pandas, said experts could not tell the sex of the surviving cub during a brief physical exam that was performed last month.

“Their reproductive organs are not fully developed at that point,” she said. “Think about how little and underdeveloped they are,” she said. “You can’t tell.”

But zoo experts did a mouth swab on the cub to extract DNA during its first exam.

“Females have two X chromosomes,” Smith said. “Males have an X and a Y chromosome. So we actually look at the chromosomes. It wasn’t physical identification of gender. There is room for error with that.”

“If you look at the chromosomes, there’s no mistake,” she said. “So that’s the way to go. Go to the cellular level.”

The National Zoo's giant panda Mei Xiang dotes on her cub Thursday. Officials announced that the baby panda is female and that the cub's father was confirmed to be Tian TIan. (Smithsonian National Zoo)

Smith said keepers have gotten a close look at the cub. “I am happy to report that she is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It’s got a fat little belly. It’s very active. It’s very vocal.”

Asked about the cub’s public debut, Smith said it’ll take place in “probably about four months.”

Pierre Comizzoli, a zoo research veterinarian, said the zoo’s female giant panda, Mei Xiang, was artificially inseminated March 30, first with sperm from Tian Tian — some fresh and some frozen from 2003.

Twelve hours later, she was inseminated again, this time with vintage 2003 sperm from Tian Tian and Gao Gao.

Gao Gao has proved to be a successful breeder, fathering five cubs in San Diego, including one born last summer.

Tian Tian, who was born in captivity in China, is a hefty 264 pounds but has been a relatively ineffective breeder with poor natural technique, zoo experts have said.

He has managed to father only the zoo’s beloved Tai Shan in 2005 and a premature female cub last year that died after six days.

The cub’s paternity is important because its lineage determines how common its genes are in the giant-panda gene pool.

In captivity, inbreeding with common genes can pass along genetic mutations that could lead to potential health problems, the zoo has said. So the less common the genes, the better.

“We would have been really happy to know that the father was Gao Gao,” Comizzoli said Thursday. “But this is Tian Tian, so this is still good in terms of the genetic management of the captive population.”

“This year we learned . . . more about this really mysterious reproductive physiology of the giant panda,” he said.

He added that by Chinese tradition, the zoo will wait 100 days after the birth to name the cub and will work with some name suggestions from China. China owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos and allows giant panda cubs to remain here for four years.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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