Determining panda pregnancies isn’t as easy as you might think

By Kelli Bender
Updated August 20, 2015 07:10 PM

What to expect when you’re expecting a baby panda … is a little unclear.

Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo is working to determine if its giant female panda, Mei Xiang, is pregnant again, reports The Smithsonian. The 17-year-old animal is already the mom to Tai Shan, born in 2005, and Bao Bao, born in 2013.

Zoo workers expect baby No. 3 is on the way, after performing an ultrasound on Mei Xiang on Wednesday; the procedure detected what looks like a developing fetus. If this is the case, the mother should be ready to give birth sometime between next week and early September.

Unfortunately, it’s a tad bit trickier to confirm a panda pregnancy than a human one. First, there is the chance that Mei Xiang is experiencing a pseudopregnancy, a phenomenon in which there is a rise in progesterone, which triggers behaviors linked to pregnancy without a fetus. Mei Xiang has had six of these false alarms during her stay at the National Zoo.

There is also a risk the panda could miscarry or resorb the fetus back into her body. And there’s a slight chance the fetus that vets spied on the ultrasound could just be a misidentified piece of bamboo.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, said in a press release. “We want a healthy cub for all the right conservation reasons. I am excited, but I have to say that we were prepared for a cub even before this morning’s ultrasound. Our expert team of keepers, scientists and veterinarians are going to do exactly what they are trained to do and I’ll just ask everyone to remain positive with us.”

During her past pregnancies, Mei Xiang wouldn’t allow vets to perform an ultrasound when she was this far along, but all the other signs point to the panda becoming a mom for the third time.

“She is continuing to spend more time in her den, sleeping more, body licking and cradling objects – all behaviors consistent with a pregnancy or pseudopregnancy,” the press release continued.

Time to cross your paws and channel cuddly baby vibes in Mei Xiang’s direction. While you wait for Panda Watch to play out in America’s capital, you can rejoice in Malaysia’s recent addition. On Tuesday, giant panda Liang Liang of Malaysia’s Zoo Negara gave birth to a healthy cub.