In July 2013 staff at Zoo Atlanta were keeping their fingers crossed for a healthy delivery from their pregnant giant panda. However, all anyone could really do was watch and play the waiting game. After all, sometimes female pandas display the right signs of labor, but when the due date arrives… nothing. No one at the zoo was, though, quite expecting what happened next.
This incredible story was possible because Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta is home to now-18-year-old pandas Lun Lun, a female, and Yang Yang, a male. This handsome couple has been together at Zoo Atlanta since 1999.
Mind you, Lun Lun and Yang Yang were actually both born at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in 1997. The reason they were moved to Zoo Atlanta? Well, there were high hopes that they would become panda parents.
Romance was always on the cards for these two Atlanta celebrities. The zoo even posted their dating profiles on its website to give people a better sense of the bears’ personalities. For example, Lun Lun’s favorite hobbies are climbing and sleeping, while Yang Yang enjoys the smell of tabasco and lavender. Naturally, then, the two giant pandas are favorites at the zoo, and a live webcam allows their fans to enjoy 24-hour panda entertainment.
Most importantly, though, Lun Lun and Yang Yang have managed to produce single babies successfully on three occasions. Their first cub, a male called Mei Lan, was born in September 2006, their second son, named Xi Lan, arrived in 2009, and a daughter named Po came along in 2011.
And in 2013 the zoo’s breeding efforts were successful once more. Yes, an ultrasound scan given by zoo staff confirmed that Lun Lun was pregnant for a fourth time. Understandably, the carers and the panda family fans were ecstatic.
Of course, Zoo Atlanta staff would have no doubt discussed every eventuality of the pregnancy, and yet nothing could have prepared them for what happened on delivery day. That’s because on the evening of July 15, 2013, Lun Lun gave birth to a tiny pink cub… that was followed minutes later by a second cub. Yes, she had delivered twins!
And although it’s not uncommon for giant pandas to have twins in the wild, the two arrivals took zoo staff completely by surprise, as they hadn’t noticed a second fetus on Lun Lun’s earlier scan. What’s more, the cubs represented the first birth of panda twins in the United States since 1987.
“We’re thrilled to welcome Lun Lun’s and Yang Yang’s twins,” zoo President and CEO Raymond B. King enthused following the birth. “Twins are an entirely new scenario for Lun Lun, Zoo Atlanta and our animal care teams, who will no doubt be extremely busy over the next few months.”
That’s because, in the wild, a momma panda tends to concentrate her efforts on just one cub, almost completely neglecting the other one. Hence, carers kept a watchful eye on Lun Lun’s behavior and, when necessary, rotated the twins so that both received equal care and attention from their mom without making her too tired.
In addition, due to baby panda’s minute size, there is a very real risk of mortality in the first few months. And this risk was increased for Lun Lun’s babies, as the twins each weighed less than average for a newborn single cub.
That said, the twins got off to a good start and rapidly gained weight during their first 100 days. It was also during this time that the tiny balls of black and white fluff, both females, were given the names Mei Lun and Mei Huan.
And as with any good panda name, the monikers have significance for these rising stars. Indeed, Mei Lun means “indescribably beautiful,” while Mei Huan is Chinese for “magnificent.”
What next? Well, after a few months of bonding in private, the family threesome were moved to another enclosure where the public could view momma’s gentle interaction with her cubs. Then, in February 2015, the young cubs were carefully weaned from Lun Lun and became fully independent little beasties.
However, it’s not always cute cuddles and family love for the species. In fact, raising giant pandas is serious conservation business; after all, they are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’s Red List. This scientific list evaluates the risk of extinction for thousands of species on the planet and is considered to be an authority on conservation status.
Sadly, then, these beautiful creatures have come under many threats over the years. Such threats include habitat destruction as well as the animal’s inability to easily reproduce.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult for conservationists to boost panda numbers through breeding programs. This is due in part to female pandas having a notoriously short window in which they can get pregnant – just two or three days each year.
On top of this, the female panda practices delayed implantation. This means that even if she is carrying a fertilized egg for 95 to 160 days of the pregnancy, it might not implant into her uterus until the week before delivery. And sometimes it won’t even happen then, as the female’s body may “reabsorb” the fetus. This results in what is called a pseudo-pregnancy, something that still baffles biologists. Consequently, to help with the whole process, most zoos will artificially inseminate the female with her partner’s sperm. But, it must be said, even this is still a gamble.
Nevertheless, Mei Lun and Mei Huan celebrated their third day in July 2016. And while the cubs are currently still enjoying their youth, it is hoped that the two will one day become mothers in their own right and help with saving the panda population.