September 9 marks 58 years exactly since the first-ever live birth in captivity of a giant panda, when in 1963 Beijing Zoo welcomed a wee bald bear into their care. Flash forward almost six decades and Zoo Aquarium Madrid has an even bigger bundle of joy to present to the world, as their resident panda gave birth to twins on September 6. The tiny, pink, screaming jelly beans came into the world with a healthy set of lungs each, as they wriggled and squealed in a way that is characteristic of these newborns, if not a little headache-inducing.
Reports from the zoo explain that the excitement first began at 4 am on Monday when the first contractions began for mom Hua Zui Ba. She began making vocalizations a few hours later and the first baby made its screaming (seriously, watch the video) debut at 8.30 am. The second twin followed suit around midday, an unsurprising attendee as half of all panda births feature twins. In the wild, this rarely results in the survival of both cubs as the parent will eventually invest their resources in the stronger of the two.
Once a newborn pops into the world, the mother will gather them and clean them, which can look a little strange as, unlike their enormous, fluffy, black and white parents, baby pandas come into the world near enough bald. Small, pink, and highly vocal, they’ll remain entirely dependent on their mother for around four months. Evidently, it takes a lot of patience to be a panda parent.
Baby pandas are exceptionally small compared to their parents. In fact, at just 100 grams (35 ounces), they're one of the smallest mammal newborns in relation to the mother. A 2019 study on why panda cubs are so tiny found that the bones of newborn pandas are immature compared to other mammals, equivalent to "a 28-week human fetus”, according to the study's co-author, Peishu Li. “They’re basically undercooked."
Births such as these are of great importance to struggling species like giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), as captive breeding programs can maintain their genetic diversity while wild breeding animals get their groove back. But pandas are spectacularly rubbish at getting it on, so they need all the help they can get.
Unfortunately for zookeepers, getting pandas to mate hasn’t always seen much success. Highly relatable scenes emerged from Copenhagen Zoo earlier this year as a female’s mating window was sorely missed owing to her partner being far more interested in snacks than sex.
As such, zoos have tried all sorts in a bid to spark romance among their captive pandas, and there are reports of wildlife centers trying everything from porn to artificial insemination to impregnate females, though even fertilized embryos often fail to implant.
The population has successfully been clawed back from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, but the work must continue to secure the survival of these charismatic animals.