LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — A giant panda cub born last weekend at the National Zoo in Washington has died.
Zoo officials say the cub was found dead Sunday morning after panda keepers heard sounds of distress from its mother, Mei Xiang.
Staffers were able to retrieve the cub about an hour later. The cause of death is unknown. The cub appeared to be in good condition, and there were no outward signs of trauma or infection.
Officials released video of the cub squealing earlier this week.
The cub had been a surprise at the zoo. Fourteen-year-old Mei Xiang had five failed pregnancies before giving birth.
Panda cubs are born hairless and helpless, about the size of a stick of butter. The tiny cubs are at risk for infections and so small that it’s not unheard of for panda moms to accidentally crush their young.
“This first week we are at 100 percent attention, watching to make sure she’s taking care of her cub,” said giant panda curator Brandie Smith of panda mom Mei Xiang earlier this week. “Every week that passes we become a little more confident the cub is going to survive.”
The zoo’s first panda couple, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, who arrived from China in 1972, had five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than a few days. One of the cubs was stillborn, two others died of pneumonia within a day, another died from lack of oxygen after birth, and the final cub died of an infection after four days.
Another danger comes down to size. Panda mothers are about 1,000 times heavier than their cubs, which are particularly vulnerable at birth. The hairless cubs weigh between three and five ounces, and they are born with their eyes closed. The delicate cubs have died in the past when accidentally crushed by mom. That happened in two different zoos in China in 2009 and 2010 when mothers killed their young while attempting to nurse.
There are more routine concerns, too. Panda moms have to ensure their cubs stay warm and are getting enough to eat.
“It’s kind of a nerve-wracking period for the folks that are monitoring mom and cub,” said Rebecca Snyder, the curator of mammals at Atlanta’s zoo, one of only two other American zoos to have had cubs.
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