- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Ailuridae
- Genus: Ailurus
- Species: fulgens
- Nicknames: Lesser panda, Red cat-bear
- Average Length: 20 to 26 in (50 to 64 cm)
- Tail Length: 12 to 20 in (28 to 50 cm)
- Average Weight: 8 to 14 lbs (3 to 6 kg)
- Average Lifespan: 8 years
Like the black-and-white giant panda, the red panda is equally admired with a worldwide popularity. The arboreal “other bamboo eater” shares the giant panda’s rainy, high-altitude forest habitat, but has a wider range. Surprisingly, red panda fossils have been discovered in North America that date as far back as five million years. Today, however, red panda are only found in small, isolated mountain territories above 4,00 feet in central China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma.
Red pandas are the only living member of the family Ailuridae, and their taxonomic position has been a subject of much scientific debate. In 1825, they were first described as belonging to the raccoon family but the classification has been controversial ever since. It was argued that the panda’s ecological characteristics and morphological similarities of the head, dentition, and ringed tail meant it was evolutionarily related to the raccoon. However, after DNA testings, the red panda was reassigned to the bear family, Ursidae.
Now, the most recent genetic research places the red pandas into their own independent family: Ailuridae. Molecular phylogenetic studies also show that they are an ancient species in the order Carnivora and superfamily Musteloidea. This means that the red panda is probably most closely related to weasels, raccoons, and skunks.
Red pandas have large round heads and short snouts with large pointed ears. They have an extremely robust dentition, the arrangement of their teeth, in contrast with other carnivores their size. The round face is predominantly reddish brown with white ears and white ‘tear marks’ running from the corner of each eye to the mouth. These markings could have evolved to keep the sun out of their eyes.
However, this panda is known for its lustrous coat: a rich reddish brown color on the back and black on the legs and stomachs. The long coarse guard hairs cover the dense woolly undercoat and provide warmth. Underneath is a soft, dense, woolly undercoat. Its coat provides effective camouflage amongst the trees where branches are often swathed in reddish-brown moss and white lichens. The long bushy tail, used to keep its balance, is marked with twelve alternating red and buff rings.
Red pandas are the only Asian carnivores known to have dense white hair on the soles of their feet to provide warmth. The nearest parallel is the polar bear. In addition to the hairs, the species have five toes that are widely separated and semi-retractable claws.
To mark their territory, they use scent glands located on between their footpads. The scent marking glands exude a colorless liquid, odorless to humans. Red pandas test the odors using the bottom of their tongues, which has a cone-like structure to collect the liquid and bring it closer to the gland inside their mouths.
They are also the only carnivores with this unique adaptation. Their ankles are extremely flexible and can rotate when climbing headfirst down a tree trunk. This enables the red pandas to climb well, use the trees for shelter, to quickly escape predators, and sunbathe in the winter.
Unlike the giant panda, which consumes virtually every above-ground part of the bamboo culm, red pandas are selectively feed on the most nutritious leaf tips and when tender shoots are available. Despite this, bamboo constitutes 85% to 95% of the red panda’s diet. They feed by grasping the stem with their forepaws and shearing selected leaves off with their mouths.
However, the red panda will also forage on the ground for roots, succulent grasses, fallen fruits, insects, and grubs. It is also known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals. However, because bamboo is its staple diet, when the supply of bamboo is short, red pandas lose weight.
Red pandas are primarily crepuscular creatures, active at dawn and dusk. On average, they are awake about 45% of the day. They are more active in cooler weather, especially so during the winter mating season. Due to the bamboo’s poor nutritional content, pandas are usually foraging. If not foraging, they are usually found in the trees.
For the most part, red pandas are considered generally considered as solitary. However, there are several exceptions. First, young red pandas grow relatively slow, developing extended associations with their mothers that last for over a year. Second, the species have short relationships during the annual breeding season.
Males occupy territories that overlap those of several females, with all marking their territories with anal secretions. Females often have home ranges of about one square mile; males can live in areas twice the size. Only 650-1,000 feet per day and about 25% per month of their home territories are patrolled due to their need to constantly conserve energy.
Red pandas breed from January through March in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, breeding season is from June to August. The rapid change in day length after the winter solstice instigates this breeding season.
Though they prefer to stay up in the trees, mating occurs on the ground. Gestation appears to include a period of delayed implantation, usually lasting from 114 to 145 days. However, it may be as short as 90 days or as long as 158 days. As reproduction expends a great deal of energy, it is believed that a long gestation period may be due to a slow metabolic rate. Late spring births also coincide with the most tender and digestible bamboo shoots and leaves emerging.
In preparation for the young, females will create a nest in tree holes, branch forks, tree roots, or bamboo thickets. They will also line it with moss, leaves, and other soft plant material.
Usually a litter consists of two young, born completely furred, blind, and helpless. They weigh between 3.9 and 4.6 ounces (110 to 130 g). After 18 days, they open their eyes. Offspring will stay with the mother for about a year, which is when they normally reach adult size. Sexual maturity does not occur until around the 18th month.
As a result of these characteristics, red pandas have a slow rate of reproduction and have great difficulty in recovering from population declines.
Generally, red pandas are quiet. But at close proximity, subtle vocalizations such as squeals, twitters, and huff-quacks can be heard. They may also hiss or grunt. Young cubs will use a whistle, which sounds like a loud scream, to signal distress.
Conservation and Threats:
Red pandas are an endangered species. Researchers believe that the total population has declined by 50% over the past two decades. It is probable that this decline will continue in the coming years.
The primary threat they face is habitat loss and degradation. Across much of their range, the red panda’s forest home is being cleared. This is usually attributed to logging, demand for firewood, human encroachment, and farming. Decrease in suitable habitat has coincided with the increase in human populations throughout Asia. And with human encroachment comes livestock, agriculture, and dogs, all of which produce different threats.
In the Emaw Bum region of Myanmar, more than 5,000 km2 have been logged since 1999–2000, resulting in many new roads into mountain areas between the May Hka river and the Chinese border. These logging roads not only destroy the habitat directly but also facilitate access for hunters.
Herds of livestock compete with red pandas for available bamboo leaves and degrade their habitat.
Domestic dogs can hunt or transmit canine distemper, which is fatal to red pandas. The lack of an annual vaccination in India, at least, leads to a high incidence of canine distemper in dogs of one to five years of age. Spillover of the disease into wild species is already well documented, such as to the Indian fox and tiger.
Furthermore, poaching and illegal trade of red pandas has reportedly been on the rise and may contribute to their population decline. The presence of red panda pelts, meat, and other items have increased in the trade of illegal products as well as live red pandas being trafficked into the pet trade. This may be due to the general increase in interest in red panda skins and meat in China.
They are poached for their distinctive pelts in China and Myanmar. In Yunnan, China, hats made from the fur is highly desired for newlyweds as it traditionally symbolizes a happy marriage. Wildlife trade is rampant in Myanmar (about 30 tons of wildlife products per month), partially because of its proximity to the Chinese border. Red panda fur caps or hats have also been found for sale in Bhutan.
Live red panda trade for pets also seems to be increasing. Chinese newspapers and social media of red pandas for sale were found. Other Asian countries, notably Thailand, are also having an increased demand and popularity for red pandas as pets.
These threats are compounded by increasing climate change and natural disasters, inadequate enforcement of laws and regulations, and limited investment in red panda conservation by local governments.
The IUCN has prioritized four major categories of action needed to take in order to conserve red pandas: protect against habitat loss, reduce habitat degradation, reduce deaths of red pandas (through poaching and removing man-made threats), and improve awareness.
It is listed in Appendix I of CITES. In India, the species is under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, the highest protection possible for a species in India. It is also legally protected in China, listed nationally as vulnerable and as a Category II species under the Wild Animal Protection Law. The red panda is also legally protected in Bhutan, Nepa, and Myanmar.
In addition, red pandas have several protected areas. China has 46 such regions, often overlapping those with the giant panda, that cover about 65% of the species’ habitat in the nation. There are at least three in Myanmar and 19 protected or managed areas in India.
An international breeding program exists with red pandas being bred in more than 30 zoos worldwide. In North America alone, the captive population in 2001 was 182 individuals. All of which are maintained and managed under the Species Survival Plan, a recovery plan.
- In significantly cold temperatures, red pandas can become dormant, lowering their metabolic rate only to raise it every few hours to wake up and look for food. This allows them to spend almost as little energy as a sloth.
- The name panda is said to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya’, which means bamboo or plant-eating animal.
- Its scientific name means ‘fire-colored cat’, the red panda shares more similarities with bears and racoons.
- After eating or resting, the red panda will tend to room itself thoroughly.
- Red pandas have an extremely slow metabolism and are only active for around 56% of the day to compensate for the poor nutrients found in bamboo.
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