News & Politics

More on the National Zoo’s Panda Cub Reveal

The announcement was made outside the panda exhibit Thursday morning.

Zoo-goers can still see new dad Tian Tian at the panda exhibit—though not mother or cub. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

The results are in. The National Zoo’s newborn giant panda cub is female, and her father is the resident adult male panda, Tian Tian. The zoo announced the results of sex and paternity tests Thursday morning outside the panda exhibit, while Tian Tian lazed about on a rock in the background. 

The paternity test was made necessary by the zoo’s artificial insemination procedures on Mei Xiang in March. In addition to being injected with sperm from Tian Tian, Mei Xiang also received a sample from Gao Gao, a panda at the San Diego Zoo with a far more prolific reproductive history. 

“The reason to do the second insemination was to make sure there’s enough sperm,” says Pierre Comizzoli, a reproductive biologist at the National Zoo. 

The cub’s sex and paternity were revealed through DNA testing of a sample collected through a buccal swab of its cheek, said Nancy Rotzel, the zoo’s lab manager. To determine paternity, Rotzel and her team analyzed the DNA sequences of all three members of this panda tango and looked for genetic markers. The procedure was not dissimilar to one that would happen in a criminal forensics lab. 

While every zoo employee seems elated by the mere presence of the 13-day-old cub, Commizoli added that it would have been scientifically interesting if the cub turned out to be Gao Gao’s. The artificial insemination procedures were scheduled after, once again, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang failed at breeding naturally. 

The cub is by all accounts healthy and growing, zoo curator Brandie Smith said. While it is still blind as the day it was born, the cub is beginning to progress from a blobby pink thing into, well, a creature that looks more like a panda. It is starting to grow hair, including black markings around its eyes, ears, and back. 

The cub will also remain nameless for about another three months following a Chinese custom in which newborn cubs get named after 100 days. The name will be selected by the National Zoo and its Chinese counterparts, though Washington-area panda gawkers may have some input. 

Right now, the only way for the public to catch a glimpse of either Mei Xiang or her new cub is on one of the zoo’s panda surveillance cameras. It’ll be another few months before both are ready to return to the exhibit. But Tian Tian and his layabout ways are still on full view, a fact made quite clear by a zoo attendant stationed outside the exhibit.

“The panda’s outside!” he told passers-by.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.