Smithsonian Institution

National Zoo Prepares for Panda Breeding in a Big Way

The stork has arrived! But forget feathers and a long beak -- this stork is an airplane carrying vaults of liquid nitrogen. What should you expect from this stork’s swaddle? A newborn giant panda.

For the first time, the National Zoo transported frozen giant panda semen from China to the District for breeding. Caitlin Burrell, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), landed at Dulles International Airport on April 20 with a semen sample in tow.

The sample was taken in China from Hui Hui, a 9-year-old male panda. It was stored at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base’s cypropreservation bank before it made the trip to D.C.

The frozen semen the flew from Chengdu, China to Dulles -- a journey over 7,000 miles -- at minus 196 degrees Celsius in liquid nitrogen (taking “Ice, Ice, Baby” to a new, literal level).

The zoo documented this odyssey on its Instagram @SmithsonianZoo using the hashtags #InstaScience and #PandaStory.

After landing at Dulles, the semen was taken to the SCBI’s cypropreservation bank at the zoo. It may be used to artificial inseminate the zoo’s female giant panda, Mei Xiang, when she goes into estrus this spring.

Mei Xiang has two cubs now, Tai Shan and Bao Bao, both fathered by Tian Tian. The zoo said a cub sired by Hui Hui would be more genetically valuable than one by Tian Tian.

Each year, SCBI scientist Jon Ballou calculates the best matches for eligible breeding pandas around the world. There are 392 giant pandas living in human care. Scientists hope to grow this population to 500.

“This is the first time we have imported semen from China for panda breeding,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “I want to thank everyone involved, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, China’s State Forestry Administration, and our own team of panda scientists, who made this transport possible.”

Keep an eye out for news and pictures from the National Zoo, documenting the latest high-profile panda!

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