July 24, 2009

First Giant Panda Born From Frozen Sperm In China

Chinese officials announced on Friday the first successful birth of a panda cub from artificial insemination using frozen sperm, The Associated Press reported.

Experts say the birth may provide a new option for the endangered species, which is known to have fertility difficulties.

The Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in southwestern Sichuan celebrated the birth of 11-year-old You You's (pronounced Yo Yo) third cub on Thursday morning.

The new offspring is the 10th panda cub born at Wolong this year.

Footage shown by state broadcaster CCTV revealed the mother licking the baby to clean it just after dawn. It is the first successful live birth worldwide using frozen panda sperm, according to researchers.

Huang Yan, a deputy research technician with the China Panda Preservation Research Center, said they had tried the technique before, but it failed during previous attempts.

He also noted that the technique had been attempted in other countries, but it was the first known instance of a live birth. The sperm from male panda Lolo had been frozen for "a number of years" before insemination effort, Huang said.

Panda's have a notoriously low sex drive, which has made artificial insemination a common use for breeding purposes.

A record 34 pandas were born through artificial insemination in China in 2006 and 30 survived. Zoos in the United States have also used the technique for breeding purposes.

But experts noted that using panda sperm that had been frozen earlier rather than from an immediate donor had not been successful during past attempts.

A posting on the Wolong Center's Web site said that scientists started the insemination in March, and You You became pregnant in June.

Matthew Durnin, regional science director in the Asia-Pacific and North Asia for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based conservation organization, said the technique would be a positive boost for panda conservation efforts if it can be replicated.

He said researchers were limited to using semen from a few virile, reproductive males in the past.

"If you're using only one male at a time, you start to get lower and lower diversity. This can help with issues of genetic diversity among your captive population," he noted.

Panda populations are under immediate threat from habitat loss, poaching and a low reproduction rate. Females in the wild normally have a cub only once every two or three years and experts say the fertility of captive giant pandas is even lower, making breeding efforts extremely difficult.

China's southwestern Sichuan province, which was hit by an earthquake last year that killed nearly 70,000 people, is the primary home to a majority of the world's 1,600 pandas.

An additional 120 are in Chinese breeding facilities and zoos, and about 20 live in zoos outside China.

Huang said that with the new insemination efforts conservationists could avoid inbreeding of giant pandas and increase the diversity of the species.