Zoo staff help Washington panda with newborn twins

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Panda Twins Born at Smithsonian National Zoo

National Zoo staff are helping giant panda Mei Xiang adjust to life with her newborn twins by occasionally switching out one cub and keeping it in an incubator, zoo officials said on Sunday.

Mei Xiang, a star tourist draw, took staff by surprise on Saturday by giving birth to twins about four-and-a-half hours apart. Giant pandas are among the world's most endangered species and she had been artificially inseminated.

Laurie Thompson, a giant panda biologist, said she and other staff had monitored Mei Xiang to see if she was strong enough to pick up the second cub on her own.

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Zoo staff help Washington panda with newborn twins
The Smithsonian National Zoo's Giant Panda Mei Xiang, mother of panda youngster Bao Bao who was born Aug. 23, 2013, sleeps in the indoor habitat at the zoo in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The zoo says that the hormone levels of its adult female panda were rising, a sign that she might be pregnant. Mei Xiang, one of the two adult giant pandas which arrived here from China on Dec. 6, 2000, has started to show a secondary rise in her urinary progesterone levels since July 20 after she was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27, the zoo said in a statement. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Giant Panda Mei Xiang, mother of panda youngster Bao Bao who was born Aug. 23, 2013, sleeps in the indoor habitat at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The zoo says that the hormone levels of its adult female panda were rising, a sign that she might be pregnant. Mei Xiang, one of the two adult giant pandas which arrived here from China on Dec. 6, 2000, has started to show a secondary rise in her urinary progesterone levels since July 20 after she was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27, the zoo said in a statement. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Mei Xiang, a giant female panda, rests at the National Zoo in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. The zoo announced Thursday that the recent death of Mei Xiang's cub was due to liver and lung damage. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Bao Bao, left, the four and a half month old giant panda cub, makes her public debut as her mother Mei Xiang eats bamboo, right, at an indoor habitat at the National Zoo in Washington, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Bao Bao, who now weighs 16.9 pounds (7.65 kilograms), was born to the zoo's female giant panda Mei Xiang and male giant panda Tian Tian. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 07: Mei Xiang, a Giant Panda, eats bamboo in the snow at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. United States on January 07, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: Visitors watch Mei Xiong eating bamboo at the Bao Bao's first birthday celebration in Giant Panda Habitat at Smithsonian's National Zoo on Saturday, August 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bao Bao is the cub of Mei Xiang, a female Giant Ganda, who was born in Wolong, Sichuan Province. (Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Mei Xiang munches on a snack during her baby Bao Bao's (L) Zhuazhou first birthday ceremony at the National Zoo on August 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the Zhuazhou ceremony, a baby picks a symbolic object which will supposedly foretell the future. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Mei Xiang munches on a snack during her baby Bao Bao's Zhuazhou first birthday ceremony at the National Zoo on August 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the Zhuazhou ceremony, a baby picks a symbolic object which will supposedly foretell the future. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bao Bao sits under the fertility' poster while her mother Mei Xiang eats during a Zhuazhou birthday ceremony on her first birthday celebration at the National Zoo on August 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the Zhuazhou ceremony, a baby picks an symbolic object which will supposedly foretell her future. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 22: Mei Xiang at her daughter Bao Bao's first birthday celebration in Giant Panda Habitat at Smithsonian's National Zoo on Saturday, August 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bao Bao is the cub of Mei Xiang, a female Giant Ganda, who was born in Wolong, Sichuan Province. (Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: Giant panda cub, Bao Bao, center, interacts with her mother, Mei Xiang, left, at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on Tuesday January 07, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Mei Xiang, mother of recently born Bao Bao, eats a bamboo breakfast January 6, 2014, inside her glass enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC. Bao Bao made her press debut today and will soon be presented for public viewing. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: Mei Xiang, the female panda, plays in her yard. David Rubenstein donated 4.5 million to the Smithsonian's National Zoo for the giant panda program. The panda complex will be named the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat for the next five years. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - June 1: Giant panda, Mei Xiang is seen at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on Wednesday June 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. The giant panda is being closely monitored in case she is pregnant. (Photo by Matt McClain/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - June 1: Giant panda, Mei Xiang is seen at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on Wednesday June 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. The giant panda is being closely monitored in case she is pregnant. (Photo by Matt McClain/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Mei Xiang rests at the zoo in June.
402955 05: Female panda Mei Xiang sleeps on a rock March 27, 2002 at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Four-year-old male panda Tian Tian jumped the three-year-old female panda, which are both on a 10-year loan program from China, without warning and hit her when he was trying to mate with her on Sunday morning. The two pandas stayed apart on Wednesday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
383925 02: Mei Xiang, left, and Tian Tian eat bamboo in their outdoor habitat January 4, 2001 at the National Zoo in Washington DC. At first, researchers thought that wild giant pandas were mostly solitary. Today, a somewhat different picture of giant panda social life is emerging. Giant pandas may be far more social than previously believed. National Zoo scientists are paying close attention to the interactions of the panda pair in order to gain more understanding of giant panda social behavior. (Photo by Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian National Zoo/Newsmakers)
383011 04: (FILE PHOTO) Giant pandas Mei Xiang, left, and Tian Tian play together at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong in Sichuan Province, China. The pandas arrived at Washington''s National Zoo December 6, 2000 on loan from China. The bears are replacements for the late Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing panda bears who had resided at the zoo since 1972. (Photo by Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian National Zoo/Newsmakers)
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"She was really struggling. She was trying but she wasn't able to pick up both of the cubs ... At the right moment, we were able to go in and grab one of the cubs and take it out safely when Mei Xiang was not really close to it," Thompson told reporters.

One cub was placed in an incubator in line with protocol when twins are born.

Dr. Don Neiffer, the zoo's chief veterinarian, said the first few hours after birth were critical for the panda cubs, especially since they have almost no fur.

"They are not able to thermo-regulate very well and they need to constantly be receiving some calories and fuel for the furnace," he said.

To track each cub's progress, officials are measuring and weighing each cub as they switch them out.

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27 with frozen sperm from Hui Hui, a panda in China, and fresh sperm from the National Zoo's Tian Tian. Zoo veterinarians first detected evidence of a fetus on an ultrasound on Aug. 19.

Mei Xiang previously has given birth to two surviving cubs, Tai Shan in 2005 and Bao Bao in 2013. Bao Bao marked her second birthday on Sunday.

Giant pandas have a very low reproductive rate, particularly in captivity. Their natural home is in a few mountain ranges in central China. There are about 1,600 giant pandas known to be living in the wild and some 300 in captivity.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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