No pregnant pause for Washington's pandas

High-stakes conception is detailed on the Internet

April 17, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Celebrity pregnancies are media magnets. But no human movie star has had to endure a Web site displaying her hormone charts, regular updates on her behavior and live shots of her bedroom interactions with the man in her life.

Then again, the survival of the species is unlikely to depend on the resulting baby, as is the case with Mei Xiang and her mate, Tian Tian, the stars of the National Zoo's Giant Panda Exhibit.

The fascination with the pandas' sex lives has been a springtime Washington ritual for many years, and the zoo is using its Web site, nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas, to give the nation a front-row seat for the giant pandas' continuing pregnancy story.

Giant pandas experience pseudopregnancy, meaning that their hormones and behavior mimic those of a real pregnancy. So without a definitive ultrasound there is no way to know whether Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) is actually pregnant until there is a birth or until the hormone levels return to normal.

Further complicating the issue, females have only a two- or three-day window during their yearly ovulation in which to conceive, making the timing of mating encounters or artificial insemination crucial.

Because the pair did not successfully mate, Mei Xiang, who is 6 years old and weighs about 250 pounds, was inseminated with sperm from Tian Tian (pronounced t-YEN t-YEN) on March 11. And this time, said Susan Lumpkin, the communications director of the Friends of the National Zoo, the scientists think they got it "pretty perfect."

Speculation about Mei Xiang's pregnancy has drawn huge crowds to the zoo and to the Giant Panda Web site that Lumpkin maintains. But pregnant pandas do not show visible signs because the baby is so small, about one-900th the size of an adult. The only way to know whether Mei Xiang is really pregnant is to wait for a birth in three to six months.

"There's a whole element of unpredictability which adds to the interest of this site," Lumpkin said.

The Web site includes hormone charts and analysis of pseudopregnancies from the previous two years, in addition to weekly observations and predictions posted by Dr. Steven Monfort, a zoo research veterinarian and a scientific adviser to the Smithsonian's office of the undersecretary for science.

Monfort suggested that visitors to the site should look for a rise in progesterone levels in the 50 to 130 days after ovulation.

If Mei Xiang is pregnant, the levels will be high for about a month and a half before sharply dropping.

This precipitous drop indicates either an end to the pseudopregnancy or a birth. With a birth not expected until the first part of August, the zoo plans to post ultrasounds, Web shots and other information as they arrive. And because construction limits the public viewing area, two live Panda Cams offer an alternative to in-person visits.

The best time to tune in is from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., when the pandas are usually most active, and at noon and about 3:30 p.m. before the pandas head back inside, said Matt Olear, a spokesman for the friends organization.

The two pandas should be used to celebrity by now, having received star treatment since their arrival in 2000 from China on Panda One, a converted FedEx plane.

Millions of photographs, a few documentaries and live streaming video have broadcast their every move to millions of fans across the globe.

"Many people ask, `Why are pandas so popular?'" said Lumpkin, explaining that the Web page received almost 100,000 hits in the two weeks after the announcement that Mei Xiang was in estrus in March.

"I don't think there's any single good answer. Pandas are rare, they're cute, they're from an exotic place. It's almost inexplicable in many ways."

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