National Zoo Instagrams international travels of frozen Giant Panda semen

WASHINGTON — The National Zoo makes no secret that its Giant Pandas are the stars of the show.

And the annual “Giant Panda pregnancy watch” is the biggest attention grabber of all.

Each spring, for more than a decade,  the Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park’s publicity machine has rolled out enough panda fodder to keep the public (and news organizations) steeped in “is she pregnant or isn’t she”  hype.

One of the things that helps stoke the excitement is that even scientists can’t really tell whether the female giant panda Mei Xiang is pregnant.

So, while scientists at the zoo monitor behavioral changes and hormone levels, trying to decipher whether there’s a cub in the oven,  the Giant Panda’s belly doesn’t provide the telltale signs that a human belly can.

Either a baby panda will be born — always described as “the size of a stick of butter” — or zoo officials declare it was a pseudopregnancy.

This will be remembered as the year the zoo Instagrammed the travels of semen donated by Hui Hui, a 9-year-old panda living in China.

Thankfully, the zoo did not document the “harvesting” of the sample.

Let’s talk about panda sex (or perhaps lack thereof). Panda breeding season is a race against the biological clock. It only comes once a year for 24-48 hours, and our giant panda team must be ready. Our female giant panda Mei Xiang should enter estrus before the end of May. The panda team will artificially inseminate her with frozen-thawed semen. This year for the first time, our panda team may use semen collected from a male panda living in China. With only 2,256 pandas on the planet, 392 of which live in human care, genetics play a big role in breeding season. The best genetic match for Mei Xiang happens to be in China. So, what’s a scientist to do when the best genetic match for your female panda is on the other side of the world? Fly frozen semen to the intended female. For the next 24 hours we’ll bring you a behind-the-scenes look at the trip. SBCI scientist Caitlin Burrell is making the trip from the Bifengxia panda base with the cargo. #PandaStory #InstaScience

A photo posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on



Frozen panda semen on a plane. It gets its own storage compartment. #InstaScience #PandaStory

A photo posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

First planes, now trains. Frozen panda semen on the shuttle to the main terminal, just like everyone else #PandaStory #InstaScience A photo posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

Next stop for our endangered cargo: the cryopreservation bank at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC. #InstaScience #PandaStory

A photo posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

And now the panda semen can just chill out here in the endangered sperm bank. #InstaScience #PandaStory A video posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo (@smithsonianzoo) on

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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