When the National Zoo's Mei Xiang gave birth to a baby panda last week, the excitement rivaled Kate Middleton's delivery (or at least Kim Kardashian's). And with good reason. Panda births, especially in captivity, are few and far between.
Over the past two decades, only a handful of panda cubs have been born and survived to adulthood in the United States. Even fewer have been born through natural reproduction. In fact, only two pandas in the nation have conceived naturally, those overachievers Gao Gao and Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo.
All of which prompts the question: Why is it so hard for pandas to get it on? David Owens at the New Yorker didn't hesitate to detail the mechanics of panda mating when explaining their difficulties with natural conception.
First off, a huge issue is timing. "Female pandas are receptive only once a year, and sometimes are fertile for less than a day — an unusually narrow breeding window," he writes. The pandas have to act quickly, which is why zookeepers carefully monitor Mei Xiang's hormone levels to figure out when she is ovulating before they lift the gate separating her from her male partner, Tian Tian.
Unfortunately, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian also struggle with the actual business of making a baby, despite the fact that Mei Xiang exhibits all the clear (very clear) signs she is ready to procreate:
She wanders over a wide territory and scent-marks stones, the ground, and other surfaces with a waxy, hormone-rich secretion form a gland under her tail… Her main vocalization changes from a throaty whinny to a high-pitched chirp. She masturbates, and she lumbers towards him, rear end first, and lifts her tail. [New Yorker]
These are the not-so-subtle signals to males that it's go-time. Unfortunately, since captive males have not grown up in the wild witnessing the mating process, they literally do not know what to do. Thus, Owens writes that male pandas like Tian Tian "stand there like a man who has just opened a large box from Ikea and has no idea what to do next." Burn.
To cope with this problem, some panda handlers have turned to "panda porn," videos of other pandas having sex, to get them in the mood and show them what to do. Some males are also given Viagra, since the male can only last about 30 seconds, which makes the window for conception even smaller.
Unfortunately, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian faced an extra obstacle: Positioning. Mei Xiang kept going into the "pancake position," lying flat on her stomach with her legs spread, instead of standing firm on all-fours. Of course, Tian Tian "isn't assertive enough to lift her off the ground," says Owens. Despite the zoo's attempts with a wooden platform and plastic cylinder to get Mei Xiang into a targetable position, it didn't work.
The zoo resorted to artificial insemination, an increasingly popular procedure for pandas in captivity, but the process isn't pretty. It is more invasive than the artificial insemination process for humans. Owens describes how veterinarians "insert a low-voltage probe into [the] rectum, position it near his prostate, and pulse the current." Then a catheter delivers the semen into the cervical canal of the female panda. Both male and female are sedated during this process.
Here's to hoping that Mei Xiang's baby will have an easier time making whoopee than her folks did.