Giant panda insemination more fascinating than you might guess

Earlier this week, the Smithsonian National Zoo live-tweeted their most recent attempt to knock up a giant panda. You can read the whole thing at Storify. And, seriously people, you should read it. I originally intended to just post a short link to this, almost as a joke, but it turns out that the process of inseminating a giant panda is actually really interesting.

Besides the photos, which are great, and the revelation that it takes 15-20 people to properly oversee the process (insert obvious jokes here), the Storify contains a lot of neat behind-the-scenes details about what it's like to perform a medical procedure on a large animal. You'll also learn a thing or two about the panda reproductive process.

Fun fact: Female pandas are only fertile for about 24-72 hours, once a year. Miss that window, and you get no baby pandas. Of course, hitting the window doesn't mean you will get baby pandas. Pregnancy doesn't just happen when you put sperm in the right place at the right time. For instance, the average female human has, on her most fertile day of the month,a 9% chance of getting pregnant. (For the record, I knew the chances were surprisingly low, but even then I was surprised to learn just how low.)

The National Zoo has inseminated Mei Xang the panda for eight years in a row. Without success.

Given that, the famously low birth rate among giant pandas starts to make more sense. Especially when you consider the fact that captive males don't seem to know, instinctively, how to have sex—and without other males around to show them, they often just don't do it at all, or fail to do it correctly.

Read the Storify of Mei Xang's insemination

Read an Animal Planet story on the complications of panda reproduction

Via Wendee Holtcamp

Image: Yes, those are tubes of frozen panda sperm. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Zoo Twitter account.


  1. My inability to fully distinguish pandas from juggaloes makes this post especially disturbing.

  2. I read a long piece on artificially inseminating Mexican wolves a few years back. That was pretty complex too. (And the lady wolf ended up getting knocked up by her regular life-partner guy wolf anyway. Love wins over concerns about inbreeding . . .)

  3. This is the best argument for not keeping them in Capitivity “captive males don’t seem to know, instinctively, how to have sex”

    1.  Actually, it is more of a argument of, “Why are we keeping them artificially in existence with science when all evidence is pointing to them not being required on this planet anymore?”

      Why don’t let let them go extinct? No, seriously.

      1. They are apex preditors (bears) and they mainly eat bamboo so it isin’t like them going extinct is going to make some herbavore suddenly explode in population without them to ‘thin’ the herd.

      2. The bamboo will be fine without them eating it. No worries about that.

      3. Hunters won’t have them to hunt anymore so it will keep them from destroying the forest/bamboo to find them to kill them.

      So, I will ask once again: Why are we keeping them on life support when they seem so readily able to destroy themselves?

      1. They are apex preditors (bears) and they mainly eat bamboo so it isin’t like them going

        They’re not bears. And they’re not predators.

        Hunters won’t have them to hunt anymore so it will keep them from destroying the forest/bamboo to find them to kill them.

        Panda hunters? Even assuming that there were such a thing, why would they have to destroy a bamboo forest to hunt?

  4. Aren’t they supposed to do it like 300 times during the short window of fertility? Seriously 300 2-minute sessions of sex. I thought that was some compulsive ingrained behavior. It’s hard to imagine it’s learned.

  5. Hmm. “Panda Jerker” must be an interesting job description. “Bull Jerkers” – they relieve bulls of sperm for artificial insemination of high-rated bloodlines – is a fairly skilled profession, I’m told. My favorite arti insem factoid is the “Rhino Jerker Device” a zoo had fabricated – an incredibly robust, large stainless steel device with a tight-fitting trough and a hydraulic ram to empty Rhino testicles neatly and cleanly. I saw it built, but never in action…still…Owie.  

  6.  Can they make “test-tube” panda babies? Then implant the embryos? Or is this a human-only procedure so far? (because of either cost or technological limitations…)

    1. My best guess is that the egg harvesting would be a much more difficult and involved procedure on a panda than on a human.

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