National Zoo Curator Brandie Smith: How to Make a Baby Panda

Reena Ninan, Jordyn Phelps, Mary-Rose Abraham and David Kovenetsky

Over the weekend, a set of twins at a nature reserve in China became the first giant pandas to be born in captivity this year. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo hopes that a cub born stateside will soon follow.

“Everyone wants to see a baby panda because they’re quite possibly the cutest thing on the planet,” said Dr. Brandie Smith, the senior curator at the zoo. “But pandas are an endangered species and there’s only a few thousand left in the wild, and every single panda matters. So one more panda cub actually makes a difference to the panda species and its survival.”

The National Zoo’s hopes rest on Mei Xiang, one of its two giant pandas. ABC News got an exclusive look as veterinarians performed an ultrasound on the 233-pound bear. Mei Xiang and the zoo’s male, Tian Tian, started breeding in March. As Mei Xiang was fed a steady stream of treats, a veterinarian moved the ultrasound wand over her shaved belly.

“The ultrasound is exactly the same as it is for humans,” explained Smith. “We use the same gel, we use the same machine, and they look like similar images. The only difference with Mei Xiang is that she likes to play with the ultrasound gel. So after her procedure she’ll grab the gel and rub it on her ears and she’ll kind of play around in it.”

It may be fun for Mei Xiang, but from a conservation standpoint, giant panda pregnancy can be a very tricky thing. Pandas are only fertile for one day out of the entire year. And to make it even more complicated, they can go through something called a pseudo-pregnancy. Even if the panda is not pregnant, she may exhibit behaviors and hormone levels similar to those of an actual pregnancy.

The guessing game with Mei Xiang should be over by mid-August, according to Smith. If the 14-year-old giant panda is carrying a cub, it will be her third. A boy, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and now lives at a panda reserve in China. Sadly, Mei Xiang’s girl cub born last September died after just a week, from liver problems.

Both Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, 15, are on loan from their native China. And any cubs would stay at the zoo for about four years and then return to China as well, to be part of breeding programs. Only an estimated 1,600 pandas are left in the world.

“Pandas are so perfectly evolved to their habitat,” said Smith. “They are a bear that eats grass. Everything about giant pandas is special.”

Smith said her zoo’s giant pandas have distinct personalities. Tian Tian – whose name means “more and more” – does not have very much patience, while Mei Xiang – “beautiful fragrance” – is more thoughtful. Their hoped-for cub would not only be a welcome addition to this little family of giant pandas, but an important milestone in panda conservation.

“Pandas are one of the many animals that are going extinct because of humans,” said Smith. “We’re in a human-dominated world where the only things that would ultimately survive are cockroaches and poison ivy and I don’t think we want that world. I think we want the world filled with giant pandas and lions, tigers and elephants.”