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Surprise: Mei Xiang gives birth at National Zoo to twin panda cubs

WASHINGTON — Interest in the impending birth of a panda at the National Zoo was so great Saturday that the famous "panda cam" crashed its Web page. And that was just for the first birth. Who knew the day would end with panda twins?

The pregnancy had escaped notice until just a few days ago. But by Saturday, Mei Xiang the giant panda was showing signs of preparing to give birth, and at 5:35 p.m. she did just that, with the zoo's full panda team on hand to watch to intimate event.

The baby was born pink, hairless and blind, and it wasn't immediately apparent who the father was.

The big surprise came a few hours later, revealed via Twitter: "We can confirm a second cub was born at 10:07. It appears healthy."

We can confirm a second cub was born at 10:07. It appears healthy. #PandaStory

The sex of the newborns won't be determined until later, and the names will come sometime after that.

Two of Mei's cubs have lived past infancy, 10-year-old Tai Shan and 2-year-old Bao Bao. Two babies born between them didn't make it.

Mei's predecessor pandas at the zoo knew similar sorrow. The famous Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, gifts from the government of China after President Richard Nixon's visit, had five cubs, none of whom lived beyond a few days.

The childless couple developed quite a following, though, drawing millions of visitors each year, and Mei and her young family have enjoyed a similar popularity.

Conservationists venerate the black-and-white bears, among the rarest animals in the world, as familiar symbols of their efforts to protect endangered species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, giant pandas are considered an endangered species. There are less than 2,500 pandas left in the wild, most of which are confined to the south-central region of China.

Earlier this month, the San Diego Zoo announced that its own giant panda was not pregnant, ending weeks of speculation. Zookeepers had been monitoring the panda to see whether it showed any behaviors consistent with pregnancy. That panda, Bai Yun, has had six cubs and is nearing the end of her reproductive years.

Americans, it turns out, just love the cuddly-looking creatures and want to watch them for hours on their computer screens.

Veterinarians were thrilled on Aug. 19 when it looked like a new one might be on the way. Mei did something rare that morning. Although in recent days she had "declined participating in ultrasounds," as they wrote on their website that morning, that day she responded to the panda keepers' calls.

The ultrasound showed what looked like a developing giant panda fetus, just 4 centimeters in size and due for birth any time from next week to early September.

Out of concern for the pregnancy —or a "pseudopregnancy," as they thought this might be — they partially closed the David M. Rubenstein Giant Panda Habitat around Mei's den. Tian Tian, the zoo's adult male, and Bao Bao continued to entertain visitors inside the panda house. (Tai Shan is now in China.)

On Saturday, the tension was building. Mei was restless, having contractions, licking her body and staying in her den-all behaviors consistent with a baby on the way, the zoo said in a post on its Facebook page.

As the IT division worked to restore the panda cam service, the experts tended to the expectant mother, whose water broke in the late afternoon.

"Hoping for a healthy cub," the zoo said on Facebook. "May take a few hours."

Just an hour later, the first cub was born.

First born giant panda cub vet exam. This cub is vocalizing well & appears strong. #PandaStory #WeSaveSpecies

Mei had been inseminated in April with sperm from Tian Tian, the father of her other two offspring.

She also was inseminated with sperm from Hui Hui, a giant panda in Wolong, China, in hopes of diversifying the genetics of the panda population in human care.

Those procedures, like most everything else in Mei's life, were live streamed on Twitter using Periscope and live-posted to Instagram under the hashtag .PandaStory.

The babies will probably have a modicum of shelter for a while. Bao Bao got a few months to herself before she made a public debut.

But once the panda camera is up and running, the young family will be visible at the National Zoo website.

©2015 Tribune Co.