A Cub is Born Tai Shan's First Year

A Cub is Born
A Cub is Born
Courtesy the National Zoo

At 3:41 a.m. on July 9, a quiet night at the Smithsonian's National Zoo was interrupted by the sounds of squealing. A perplexed panda stared at a tiny, pink creature on the floor of her den. Within minutes, instinct kicked in and Mei Xiang — the zoo's female giant panda — picked up her newborn cub and cradled it to her warm, fluffy chest.

Born blind, hairless and helpless, panda cubs are completely dependent on their mother's care at birth. Unable to regulate their body temperature, they need constant contact with their mother to stay safe and warm.

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The pair spent the next week dozing, shifting positions, dozing again and occasionally nursing. When the cub squealed, Mei Xiang immediately woke to attend to it. A shift in position would set the cub off, and Mei Xiang would comfort the fragile newborn. Zoo staff heard tiny suckling sounds, indicating that the cub was nursing. Mei Xiang didn't leave the den to eat or drink during this first week.

Moments Apart

Tai Shan on July 25, 2005.
Tai Shan on July 25, 2005.

On July 15, Mei Xiang left her cub for the first time to get a drink of water, returning to it three minutes later. The cub looked larger and its belly was round, indicating that it was healthy and had been nursing frequently. Whenever Mei Xiang left the nest, the cub stayed very quiet. This may be an adaptation to life in the wild, where a noisy cub could fall prey to a carnivore on the prowl.

Over the next several days Mei Xiang would leave her cub more frequently to drink, though she continued to resist the need for food. When she was away, zoo staff began to see little black patches around the cub's eyes. Over the next week, its eyes, ears, shoulders and hind legs began to darken, and its silvery hair began to lengthen. These were the first signs of what would become the little panda's distinctive black-and-white coat.

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As the days marched on, Mei Xiang frequently placed the cub down in the hay to examine it or lie beside it for a few minutes before picking it up again. At one point, the cub seemed to be trying to crawl. Even at this early stage, he was far ahead of the curve for panda cubs.

It's a Boy!

Tai Shan on August 2, 2005.
Tai Shan on August 2, 2005.

On July 26, Mei Xiang left the cub for six minutes to drink and eat some bamboo. This is the first food she'd eaten since two days before giving birth. In summer, giant pandas go through a metabolic shift to coincide with when they produce cubs. Their food intake may decrease by up to 75 percent during this time.

At 8:10 a.m. on August 2, Mei Xiang left the den for several minutes to eat and drink as part of her new routine. Keepers closed the den door, and — after observing no reaction from Mei Xiang — took the opportunity to give the cub its first exam. Zoo staff were delighted to discover that the cub was a male. He weighed 1.82 pounds and measured 12 inches from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. His heart rate and respiration were normal, and he felt very solid and sturdy. The cub was very quiet during the exam, letting out only a single squawk when his mouth was examined.

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Mei Xiang was very anxious during the exam. She stood up, pawed at the den door and attempted to open the window. When the door was reopened, Mei Xiang quickly retrieved her cub, examined him, then settled down for a long, comfortable nap.

Signs of Awareness

Tai Shan on August 9, 2005.
Tai Shan on August 9, 2005.

The cub was examined again on August 9, at which time he weighed 2.6 pounds and measured 14.5 inches. He was relatively quiet during most of the exam. He made soft sucking noises like he wanted to nurse, but toward the end of the exam he began to squeal. This caused Mei Xiang, who was on the other side of the den door, to become very agitated. Unable to get to her cub, she ran in circles around her enclosure and produced several sharp, high-pitched barks. The two were reunited soon after, and they settled down quickly for a nap.

On August 18, vets noted an eye blink response during the cub's third exam, though he had yet to open his eyes. A gum ridge was present, but no teeth had poked through.

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The cub became more alert and active by the day. He began reacting to sounds, lifting and bobbing his head whenever the den door was opened or closed. He also learned to right himself from a side position and to flip over onto his belly. On August 20 he was seen trying to lift his entire body with his four legs, and several days later he used his hind legs to push up closer to Mei Xiang. These were the first signs of the cub's developing muscle coordination.

Cub Coordination

Tai Shan on September 1, 2005.
Tai Shan on September 1, 2005.

On August 25 the cub opened its eyes for the first time, a huge milestone. He was also seen lifting his head in response to Mei Xiang's vocalizations and movements, and even orienting his head toward her. This was a sure sign that he could hear.

The cub's muscles continued to develop daily, and as a result his movements became more and more directed. To demonstrate his newfound dexterity, the cub started rubbing his hind feet together and occasionally scratching his fore leg with his hind leg. His attempts at crawling became more purposeful, and by September 3 he was able to lift his head and chest off the ground and drag himself forward. True crawling, however, was still just out of reach as the cub was still unable to lift his lower half; instead, he'd half-crawl in circles before tiring out and falling fast asleep.

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A Giant Step Forward

Tai Shan on September 19, 2005.
Tai Shan on September 19, 2005.

At the cub's fifth health exam on September 8 he received his first distemper vaccination. He weighed 7.5 pounds and measured just over 21 inches. He was very active during the exam, doing pushups and trying to crawl on the table. He even lifted his entire body on all four legs, a first. The buds of his teeth were felt beneath the gums, but so far none had broken through.

The cub continued to grow, which made it harder for Mei Xiang to handle him. She was forced to use her mouth and both paws to flip the cub over while giving him one of her frequent tongue baths.

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On September 21, the cub took his first step. He lifted himself up on all four legs, began to sway, took a sudden step forward and then fell on his face. After all the effort he immediately fell to sleep. He continued trying to stand and walk over the next couple weeks to varying degrees of success.

The "Peaceful Mountain"

Tai Shan on October 12, 2005.
Tai Shan on October 12, 2005.

October 4 — October 17, 2005

A quick exam on October 4 revealed that the cub's incisors and molars had erupted through the gum line. A week later his canines had erupted through. As an adult, he won't find much use for his canines, as pandas are strict vegetarians, but his incisors, molars and premolars will see plenty of action; these are used together to strip leaves from bamboo stalks, break the stalks into pieces and mash them into a pulp that can be easily swallowed.

All the cub's attempts to walk finally paid off as he began to walk frequently and confidently. As soon as he got this skill down, he was off to learn another. On October 16 he showed the first signs of play behavior when he swatted at Mei Xiang's nose with his paw several times.

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On October 17, the cub turned 100 days old and received his official name: Tai Shan, which means "peaceful mountain" in Chinese. The world-famous panda was oblivious to the fanfare and slept through most of the ceremony.

Pandas at Play

Tai Shan on October 31, 2005.
Tai Shan on October 31, 2005.

October 18 — November 4, 2005

Tai Shan was seen mouthing a narrow stem of bamboo on October 19, something that the keepers had not expected to see for at least a month or so. He did so for several minutes, using the front and side of his mouth like an adult panda. Tai Shan will continue nursing past his first birthday, but bamboo will slowly become a more important part of his life hereafter.

Zoo staff began placing Tai Shan in the indoor exhibit enclosure to get him used to being outside the den. This didn't sit well with Tai Shan for the first month; as soon as he was placed in the enclosure, the cub would march himself directly back to his cozy den.

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Tai Shan was also seen playing more frequently with Mei Xiang. She would roll the cub around in her arms while gently biting his neck and ears, and Tai Shan would respond by biting back, swatting at her face and kicking vigorously.

The Little Explorer

Tai Shan on November 11, 2005.
Tai Shan on November 11, 2005.

November 5 — November 28, 2005

While the keepers had trouble convincing Tai Shan to explore the world outside his den, Mei Xiang was able to do so with little effort. When keepers arrived on the morning of November 5 they found the pair in the exhibit enclosure independently exploring their surroundings. From this point onward, Mei Xiang began regularly taking Tai Shan with her into the exhibit enclosure. Sometimes she'd leave him on the rocks for a few minutes, bleating every so often to make sure everything's alright.

Within a matter of weeks Tai Shan was exploring both enclosures, climbing in and out of the dry pools, rolling in the hay while chewing his feet and trying to sit up against the rocks without falling over. As his upper body became stronger, he was able to pull himself onto a 2-foot ledge in one of the dens and later up onto the rocks, where he found an old stump that became a favorite toy for many weeks.

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Tai Shan spent most of his playtime alone at this stage, as Mei Xiang remained outside for a good part of the day feastingon bamboo. He continued practicing with bamboo, sometimes sitting up and holding it while mouthing the stalk — the exact position adults take when feeding. With his mouth around the leaves he'd pull the bamboo from one side of his mouth and out the other, the stalk firmly grasped between his pseudo thumb and claws. This behavior may be genetically programmed, as he'd rarely if ever witnessed Mei Xiang eating bamboo.

A Bear's Big Debut

Tai Shan on November 29, 2005.
Tai Shan on November 29, 2005.

November 29 — December 21, 2005

On November 29, Tai Shan made his media debut. More than 100 reporters from over 50 media outlets as far away as China, Japan and Russia came to see the world-famous cub. Tai Shan showed off his climbing skills, walked along the edges of rock ledges and drank from a newly discovered trickle of water while the cameras flashed and the reporters "oohed" and "aahed."

Tai Shan's awareness of his surroundings increased by the day. He discovered the joys of playing with leaves and toys, such as soccer balls and kongs. When those games became boring, Tai Shan always had his favorite old wooden stump to play with.

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On December 8, Tai Shan made his public debut. He played, climbed rocks and scaled the miniature "mountain" in his enclosure before carefully picking his way back down. A week later, an extremely playful Tai Shan weighed in at 23.3 pounds and measured 36.6 inches.

A Whole New World

Tai Shan on December 22, 2005.
Tai Shan on December 22, 2005.

December 22, 2005 — January 21, 2006

At 7:15 a.m. on December 22, Tai Shan discovered the great outdoors. After playing on the scale that separates the outer and inner enclosures for a good 10 minutes, he ventured into the sunshine for the first time. He cautiously crept along the back wall of the building, then shadowed the fence line as he made his way down to the yard. Along the way he discovered fresh gravel patches and, when he reached the yard, grass.

With very deliberate steps, Tai Shan made his way to the large fallen limb in the middle of the yard. There, he lost himself in play, hanging from the branches while Mei Xiang tried to pull him off. Later he discovered his first living tree, which he climbed as far as the protective metal sleeve meant to keep pandas from reaching the upper branches. He also walked all the way to the bottom of the dry moat and back again.

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Tai Shan's outdoor excursions became a regular occurrence from this day forward. At first he followed the same path — along the building wall, down the fence line and to the fallen limb — but eventually tried different avenues of approach to his newfound playground.

Taking to the Trees

Tai Shan on February 12, 2006.
Tai Shan on February 12, 2006.

January 22 — February 20, 2006

Tai Shan scent-marked for the first time in late January. This is something the keepers had not expected the cub to do for several more months. Just outside the keeper area, he lifted his tail, squatted and rubbed the gland on his rear end along the ground. This leaves a sticky secretion that smells very interesting to pandas. Giant pandas scent-mark often to communicate information about identity, location and seasonal availability.

On January 30, Tai Shan climbed a tree for the first time (prior to this, protective metal sleeves kept the cub from getting in over his head). Having explored every inch of ground outside, he was content to play in his new "jungle gym" for hours, climbing as high as 18 feet. At the end of the day, a keeper had to distract him while another climbed a ladder to get him down. In the wild, cubs climb trees to stay safe from predators while their mothers are off eating bamboo elsewhere. A mother may leave a mature cub in a tree for one or two days.

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On February 12, Tai Shan experienced his first snow. He tasted it, played with it, climbed the blanketed trees and tumbled about with Mei Xiang, who — like all giant pandas — loves the snow.

Thirst for Adventure

Tai Shan on March 26, 2006.
Tai Shan on March 26, 2006.

February 21 — April 23, 2006

On February 21, Tai Shan noticed his father, Tian Tian, for the first time through a window between their outdoor enclosures. Male pandas do not share parenting duties in the wild, so Tian Tian may not ever meet his offspring face-to-face in the same enclosure.

By late February, Tai Shan had figured out how to get up just about every climbable tree in his yard. Sturdier and more robust by the day, Tai Shan continued looking for new adventures. His favorite activities — climbing trees and play-fighting with Mei Xiang — kept him busy otherwise. His play fights with Mei Xiang were becoming more and more vigorous.

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In March, zoo keepers began to see signs that Tai Shan was finally starting to consume bamboo rather than just toying with it.

A Mind of His Own

Tai Shan on June 11, 2006.
Tai Shan on June 11, 2006.

April 24 — July 1, 2006

Tai Shan's climbing skills continued to improve, and his love for trees remained undiminished. He could now climb over the protective metal sleeves that are meant to protect certain trees from feisty young pandas. The keepers continued to have a difficult time getting Tai Shan to come down from his tree at the end of the day. Once he remained in a tree until well past midnight, and on another occasion he remained in his perch until 11 p.m. — during a thunderstorm! The keepers discovered that bribing Tai Shan with fruitcicles frequently works in convincing him to come down, but not always.

Mei Xiang began to enter a different phase in her role as Tai Shan's mother. Since Tai Shan had begun eating bamboo, she faced the difficult task of transitioning her cub from a diet of high-fat milk to one of high-fiber but low-nutrient bamboo.

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Mei Xiang became less tolerant of the rambunctious youngster. Tai Shan enjoyed leaping on her back and biting at her ears to initiate play, but he often received a swat instead. He was even pushed away several times when attempting to nurse.

With Tai Shan's first birthday fast approaching, only time will tell what the next year has in store for this precocious, precious panda.