The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), which occurs in a narrow range extending west to Nepal and east to southwestern China, is the only extant species in the family Ailuridae. The evolutionary affinities of this species remain uncertain, with morphological and molecular phylogenetic data having led various researchers to conclude that it is most closely related to Procyonidae (raccoon family), Ursidae (bears), or ursids plus seals, among other possibilities. As of 2013, it appears that Ailuridae is sister to a clade consisting of (Procyonidae + Mustelidae), with Mephitidae basal to (Ailuridae + Procyonidae + Mustelidae) (Eizirik et al. 2010; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds 2012; Sato et al. 2012). The Red Panda is no longer believed to be closely related to the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), although it shares with the Giant Panda a bamboo diet and certain associated morphological peculiarities (bamboo leaves constitute around 80 to 90% of the Red Panda's diet).
Red Pandas are found in temperate forests of the Himalayas and in the mountains of northern Burma and western Sichuan and Yunnan at elevations of 1500 to 4800 meters (and even up to the snowline at 5000 meters in summer). In Meghalaya (northeastern India), they have been found in tropical forests at much lower elevations, between 1700 and 1400 meters. Red Pandas are found in forests with a thick bamboo understory. Around half of the geographic range falls within China.
Except during the mating season, Red Pandas are generally solitary. They are well adapted for climbing and spend much of their time off the ground.
At least in China, Red Panda populations declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century. The greatest threats to Red Panda populations are habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and trade in live animals, although Red Pandas are legally protected in China, India, Bhutan, and Nepal and protected areas with Red Pandas have been established in all these countries.
- Eizirik, E., W.J. Murphy, K.P. Koepfli, W.E. Johnson, J.W. Dragoo, and S.J. O'Brien. 2010. Pattern and timing of the diversification of the mammalian order Carnivora inferred from multiple nuclear gene sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56: 49-63.
- Flynn, J.J., J.A. Finarelli, S. Zehr, et. al. 2005. Molecular Phylogeny of the Carnivora (Mammalia): Assessing the Impact of Increased Sampling on Resolving Enigmatic Relationships. Systematic Biology 54(2): 317-337.
- Nyakatura, K. and O.R.P. Bininda-Emonds. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology 10:12. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-12
- Sato, J.J., M. Wolsan, F.J. Prevosti, et al. 2012. Evolutionary and biogeographic history of weasel-like carnivorans (Musteloidea). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63: 745-757.
- Wei, F. and Z. Zhang. 2009. Family Ailuridae (Red Panda). Pp. 498-503 in: Wilson, D.E. & Mittermeier, R.A., eds. Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 1. Carnivores. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
In China, the Red Panda is found in the Minshan, Qionglai, Liangshan, Bigger Xiangling, and Lesser Xiangling Mountains in western Sichuan, China (Wei et al.1999a, 1999b, 2000), but former assertions of occurrence in far southern Yunnan, in Xishuangbanna (e.g. Wang Yingxiang 1987) have not been corroborated (e.g. Wei Fuwen et al. 1998). It is believed to have gone extinct from the rest of its historical range in China, e.g. Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Qinghai provinces (Wei et al. 1999).
In Myanmar it is known only from the northernmost state, Kachin, and is locally distributed even there (Than Zaw et al. in prep.).
The red panda was reported as occurring in northern Lao PDR by Deuve (1972) (citing Cheminaud 1942), though recent village interviews around Phongsali in 1996 and 2003–2004 yielded no positive indication of its occurrence. Additionally, re-examination of the historical basis for occurrence reveals significant internal inconsistencies and flaws. Hence, there is no evidence that red panda has ever occurred in Lao PDR, although it may still be found to occur there is future surveys (Duckworth et al. 1999; in prep).
Red pandas are found throughout the Himalayan mountains between 2,200 and 4,800 meters in elevation in northern Burma, Nepal, Sikkim region of India, and the districts of western Sichuan and Yunnan in China. Their geographic range is bounded in the north by the Namlung Valley in the Mugo District and the Lake Rara region of northern Nepal, in the south by the Liakiang Range of western Yunnan, and the northern and eastern boundary is the upper Min Valley of western Sichuan. (Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
Red pandas are approximately 560 to 625 mm long, with relatively long, furry tails, from 370 to 472 mm long. The tails are marked with about 12 alternating red and buff rings, and are not prehensile. The head is round; the rostrum is shortened; and the ears are large, erect, and pointed. Long, coarse guard hairs cover the body, and the undercoat is soft, dense, and woolly. The body is darker in eastern specimens. The face is predominantly white with reddish-brown "tear" marks under the eyes. The fur on the upper side of its body is reddish-brown, while ventrally it is glossy black. The legs are black and the soles of its feet are covered with dense, white hair. There is no sexual dimorphism in color or size between males and females. Front legs are angled inward, leading to its waddling walk. The feet are plantigrade.
The red panda has a robust skull with a poorly developed zygomatic arch, sagittal crest, and postorbital process. The palatines extend beyond the level of the most posterior molar, the mesopterygoid fossa is constricted anteriorly, and the auditory bullae are small. The post glenoid process is large and anteriorly recurved, and an alisphenoid canal is present.
The mandible is robust but relatively short, and the mandibular symphysis is constricted. The coronoid process is strongly hooked posteriorly, and the mandibular condyles are large.
Premolar one and molar one and two are wider than they are long and have accessory cusplets. Each upper premolar has more than one cusp, and premolar three has a well developed paracone and hypocone.
(Morris 1965, Vaughan 1972, Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
Range mass: 3.7 to 6.2 kg.
Range length: 560 to 625 mm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike
Average basal metabolic rate: 4.898 W.
Habitat and Ecology
The mean gestation in captivity is reported by Roberts and Gittleman (1984) as 134.2 days, with litter sizes ranging from one to four, and young are sexually mature at 18 month.
Red pandas live in temperate climates in deciduous and coniferous forests. There is usually an understory of bamboo and hollow trees. The average temperature is 10 to 25 degrees Celsius, and the average annual rainfall is 350 centimeters. (Glatston 1994, Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest ; mountains
Red pandas eat berries, blossoms, bird eggs, bamboo leaves, and the small leaves of other plants. Bamboo (the leaves of which are the red panda's primary food source) is bent down to bring the leaves within reach of the mouth. Food is grasped in a forepaw and brought to the mouth while sitting, standing, or lying on the back. Food grasped in this manner is inserted in the side of the mouth, sheared, then chewed extensively before it is swallowed. (Glatston 1994, Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
Animal Foods: eggs
Plant Foods: leaves; seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit; flowers
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
If threatened, red pandas climb a tree or strike out with their semi-retractile claws. One of their primary predators is the snow leopard (Uncia uncia).
- snow leopards (Uncia uncia)
The red panda, often called a firefox, doesn’t closely resemble most foxes. These arboreal mammals live in a variety of trees in Nepal, Tibet, northern India, Bhutan, Burma, Sichuan, and China. The red panda is an unusual member of Carnivora because it feeds mainly on bamboo leaves (Pradhan et al., 2001). Red pandas occur in temperate forests at elevations from 2,000–4,300 m, but are most common at 2,400–3,700 m in coniferous fir (Abies densa) forests with undergrowth of bamboo (Yushania microphylla ,Y. maling, Thamnocalamus spathiflorus and Arundinaria; Dorji et al., 2012). There are many features of the red panda that resemble a raccoon, such as its omnivorous tendencies, and its facial appearance. As a result, the red panda has been alternatively placed in the raccoon family (Procyonidae) or the bear family (Ursidae), but it now has its own unique family, the Ailuridae (Wozencraft, 2005).
The red panda diet resembles that of the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca. They also like to lounge in trees and eat bamboo, as giant pandas do. There are many different trees used for shelter. Tree use has been determined by finding red panda scat on and around trees. Presence of more scat and observation of red pandas indicate that the most important tree species (Williams, 2004), including stone oaks (Lithocarpus pachyphylla), frodin (Schefflera impressa), cup and saucer magnolia (Magnolia campbellii), and whitebeam (Sorbus cuspidata). Humans (Homo sapiens) have expanded into red panda habitat creating harsh environments and leading to some shifts in food selection (Dorji et al., 2012). Red pandas can feed on fruit, roots, succulent grasses, mushrooms, acorns, lichens, bird eggs, insects and grubs (Dorji et al., 2012). The bamboo leaves red pandas eat mainly come from two different species of bamboo (Arundinaria maling and A. aristata). Bamboo shoots are also utilized for food when available. Some examples of seasonal fruits are: hill partridge (Actinidia strigosa), sorbus (Sorbus microphylla), and himalayan rose (Rosa sericera).
- Pradhan, S., Saha, G., and Khan, J., 2001. Ecology of the red panda Ailurus fulgens in the Singhalila national park, Darjeeling, India. Biological Conservation. 98, 11-18.
- Dorji, S., Rajanathan, R., and Vernes, K. 2012. The vulnerable red panda Ailurus fulgens in Bhutan: Distribution, conservation status and management recommendations. Oryx. 46. 536-543.
- Williams, Brian. 2004. The status of the red panda in Jamuna and Mabu villages of eastern Nepal. MS thesis. San Jose State University. UMI Dissertations Publishing. 1420427.
- Wozencraft, Christopher W. 2005. Ailuridae. Wilson & Reeder’s Mammal Species of the World. 3rd Edition.
Life History and Behavior
Communication and Perception
Red pandas exhibit several visual displays during intraspecific interactions, including arching the tail and back, the slow raising and lowering of the head while emitting a low intensity puffing, turning the head while jaw-clapping, shaking the head from side to side, a bipedal posture with forelegs extended above the head, and staring.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic
The maximum lifespan of the red panda is 14 years, but the average is eight to ten.
Status: wild: 14 (high) years.
Status: wild: 8 to 10 years.
Status: captivity: 13.4 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Adult red pandas rarely interact with each other outside of the mating season. During the mating season, scent-markings increase, and the female invites the male to mount her on the ground. Males leave their scent by urinating or rubbing their anogenital area on trees. Both males and females may mate with more than one partner in a season.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Mating season is early winter. Births occur in the spring and summer, with most newborns arriving in June. Litters range from one to four young. The gestation period of the red panda is approximately 134 days. Females become noticeably heavy and lethargic around six weeks before parturition. Several days before parturition, the female begins to carry nest materials (sticks, grass, leaves) to a suitable nest site. In the wild, a nest may be a hollow tree or a rock crevice. In captivity, a box, hollow logs, or other artificial dens can serve as a nest. All births take place between 4 PM and 9 AM, which is the period of highest activity.
The young attain adult size at around 12 months, and are sexually mature at around 18 months.
(Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
Breeding interval: Red pandas breed once yearly.
Breeding season: Mating occurs in early winter.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 4.
Average gestation period: 134 days.
Average time to independence: 18 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 18 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 18 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); viviparous
Average birth mass: 100 g.
Average gestation period: 116 days.
Average number of offspring: 2.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 550 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 550 days.
After birth, females quickly clean their young and remain with them for 60 to 90 % of the time for the first few days. Mothers recognize their young by olfactory cues established shortly after birth. After one week, females spend more time away from the nest, returning every few hours to nurse and groom their young, and to keep the nest clean. The young remain nest-bound for around 90 days. They make their first excursion from the nest at night. The young and mother share a close relationship until the young becomes aggressive at the onset of the next breeding season. Males have a small or nonexistent role in raising and caring for the young.
Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Ailurus fulgens
There are 6 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Ailurus fulgens
Public Records: 5
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1996Endangered(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Insufficiently Known(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Insufficiently Known(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
Red pandas are threatened by deforestation and other human activities. Deforestation eliminates nesting sites and sources of food, and isolates populations into small fragments separated by inhospitable habitats. Ailurus fulgens is the occasional target of game hunting, and it is often found in traps set for musk deer. Red pandas are also outcompeted by local livestock for food. Expanding human populations in Asia and the increasing need for land and lumber are significant threats to the survival of this species. Red pandas are protected and listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Threatened and Endangered Species, and were declared endangered in March 1988. (Glatston 1994, Roberts and Gittleman 1984)
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix ii
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
The major causes of habitat loss are commercial logging, demand for firewood (especially in the cold Himalaya), clearing for habitation and farming, jhum (slash-and-burn shifting cultivation) by hill tribes, grazing of domestic stock, monoculture forest plantation, and various developmental activities (Choudhury 2001). Due to human encroachment in suitable forest habitat and the unusual biology of bamboos, the red panda may be near extinction in the western part of its range, especially in Nepal (Roberts and Gittleman 1984). Both legal and illegal felling of old-growth trees is occurring throughout its range in India, and in the Khast Hills of Meghalaya some of the best habitat is privately owned, potentially making conservation efforts difficult (Choudhury 2001).
Deforestation, which causes fragmentation, is the fundamental threat to this species long-term survival (Wei et al. 1999 ). Between 1980 and 1995 the number of tourists visiting Sikkim annually rose from 1000 to 100,000 (Mahapatra 1998), causing increased pressure on this species due to accelerating habitat loss for firewood (for cooking and heating) (Choudhury 2001). Similar threats are occurring in the Singalila area of Darjeeling and in Nepal (Choudhury 2001). Habitat is effectively stable in northernmost Myanmar (Renner et al. 2007), but elsewhere in Kachin where the panda might occur there are indications of rapid habitat degradation through deforestation in this area (B.F. King pers. comm. 1998, cited in Collar et al. 2001).
Road construction in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh over the past two decades has led to large-scale felling of trees and erosion, and sometimes landslides, also opening up formerly inaccessible areas for both legal and illegal logging (Choudhury 2001). Increased fragmentation of habitat leads to inbreeding and loss of genetic variation, which may significantly impact localized populations, as well as possible increased pressure from hunting (Choudhury 2001).
Hunting does not appear to be as serious a threat to the Red Panda as habitat loss, since hunters do not appear to deliberately hunt this species, but rather is shot opportunistically and caught accidentally in snares during hunting for wild pig, deer, goat-antelopes (serow, goral, and takin) and primates (Choudhury 2001). In Bhutan, the red panda is hunted for making fur caps or hats (Yonten, 2004). In China, Red Panda pelts can be found in many local markets (Glatson 1994). Wei et al (1998) report data which indicate that hunting and poaching pressures are severe in China, especially to a declining population, which has led to increased declines, and extinctions in some areas. Poaching is considered one of the most serious threats in China (Wang pers. comm.).
Cub mortality of the species is high in areas surrounding cattle grazing activities, estimated at up to 74% (Yonzon pers. comm.).
There are 20 protected areas in India that have known or possible populations of this species, yet these protected areas cover only about one-third of the total potential habitat for this species (Choudhury 2001). Protection of this species is more or less adequate in the protected areas of India, due more to their remoteness and difficulty of terrain, rather than actual enforcement of laws (Choudhury 2001). Enforcement of protective legislation, especially outside of protected areas, is virtually non-existent (Choudhury, 2001). Outside of India, China has 35 protected areas (Wei et al. 1998) covering about 42.4% of this species habitat in China, Nepal has eight, and Bhutan has five that support known or reported populations of this species (Choudhury 2001). The red panda has been recorded from Singalila National Park (Bahuguna et al. 1998), and Langtang National Park in Nepal (Yonzon and Hunter 1991).
Choudhury (2001) provides the following conservation recommendations: expansion and strengthening of the protected area network, prevention of illegal felling, control of jhum cultivation and overgrazing, regulation of tourism, public awareness of threatened status of this species, and enforcement of existing legal protections. The population of the species, reported at 200 m, is a research priority in order to study how a temperate species has survived in a subtropical habitat.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Red pandas have no negative impact on humans. (Glatston 1994)
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Red pandas are important socially, scientifically and economically. They are the national animal of Sikkim and the mascot of the International Tea Festival in Darjeeling. Red panda skins are used to used for hats and their tails as dusters. Furthermore, red panda skin may still be worn by the bridegroom in a local Chinese wedding. Red pandas have been pivotal in research on the taxonomy of the families Ursidae and Procyonidae. Ailurus fulgens is illegally hunted and sold to zoos or killed for their skin. Very few zoos purchase these illegal specimens, making this a fairly unproductive business, but skins can be found in local villages and are used in cultural ceremonies.
Positive Impacts: body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism ; research and education
The red panda (Ailurus fulgens), also called lesser panda and red cat-bear, is a small arboreal mammal native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China that has been classified as Vulnerable by IUCN as its wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 mature individuals. The population continues to decline and is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression, although red pandas are protected by national laws in their range countries.
The red panda is slightly larger than a domestic cat. It has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs. It feeds mainly on bamboo, but is omnivorous and also eats eggs, birds, insects, and small mammals. It is a solitary animal, mainly active from dusk to dawn, and is largely sedentary during the day.
The red panda is the only living species of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae. It has been previously placed in the raccoon and bear families, but results of phylogenetic research indicate strong support for its taxonomic classification in its own family Ailuridae, which along with the weasel family is part of the superfamily Musteloidea. Two subspecies are recognized. It is not closely related to the giant panda.
- 1 Physical characteristics
- 2 Distribution and habitat
- 3 Biology and behavior
- 4 Threats
- 5 Conservation
- 6 Domestication
- 7 Phylogenetics
- 8 Taxonomic history
- 9 Local names
- 10 Cultural depictions
- 11 Footnotes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
The head and body length of red pandas measures 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in), and their tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in). Males weigh 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8.2 to 14 lb) and females 3 to 6.0 kg (6.6 to 13.2 lb). They have long, soft reddish-brown fur on the upper parts, blackish fur on the lower parts, and a light face with tear markings and robust cranial-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Their roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Their long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ochre rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black and short with thick fur on the soles of the paws. This fur serves as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces and conceals scent glands which are also present on the anus.
The red panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for grasping of narrow tree branches, leaves and fruit. Like the giant panda, it has a “false thumb” that is an extension of the wrist bone. When descending a tree headfirst, the red panda rotates its ankle to control its descent, one of the few climbing species to do so.
Distribution and habitat
The red panda is endemic to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, and ranges from the foothills of western Nepal to China in the east. Its easternmost limit is the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province in China. Its range includes southern Tibet, Sikkim and Assam in India, Bhutan, the northern mountains of Burma, and in southwestern China, in the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan and the Gongshan Mountains in Yunnan. It may also live in southwest Tibet and northern Arunachal Pradesh, but this has not been documented. Locations with the highest density of red pandas include an area in the Himalayas that has been proposed as having been a refuge for a variety of endemic species in the Pleistocene. The distribution range of the red panda should be considered disjunct, rather than continuous. A disjunct population inhabits the Meghalaya Plateau of northeastern India.
During a survey in the 1970s, signs of red pandas were found in Nepal's Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. Their presence was confirmed in spring 2007 when four red pandas were sighted at elevations ranging from 3,220 to 3,610 m (10,560 to 11,840 ft). The species' westernmost limit is in Rara National Park located farther west of the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. Their presence was confirmed in 2008.
The red panda lives between 2,200 and 4,800 meters (7,200 and 15,700 ft) altitude, inhabiting areas of moderate temperature between 10 and 25 °C (50 and 77 °F) with little annual change. It prefers mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests, especially with old trees and dense understories of bamboo.
Distribution of subspecies
Distribution of the red panda is disjointed, with two extant subspecies:
- Western red panda A. f. fulgens (Cuvier, 1825) lives in the western part of its range, in Nepal, Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan
- Styan's red panda A. f. styani lives in the east-northeastern part of its range, in southern China and northern Burma.
Ailurus fulgens styani has been described by Thomas in 1902 based on one skull from a specimen collected in Szechwan. Pocock distinguished A. f. styani from A. f. fulgens by its longer winter coat and more abundant blackness in the pelage, bigger skull, more strongly curved forehead, and more robust teeth. His description is based on skulls and skins collected in Szechwan, Myitkyina close to the border of Yunnan, and Upper Burma.
The Styan's red panda is supposedly larger and darker in color than its Western conspecific, but with considerable variation in both subspecies, and some individuals may be brown or yellowish brown rather than red.
The Brahmaputra River is often considered the natural division between the two subspecies, where it makes a curve around the eastern end of the Himalayas, although some authors suggest A. f. fulgens extends farther eastward, into China.
Biology and behavior
The red panda is territorial; it is solitary except during mating season. The species is generally quiet except for some twittering, tweeting, and whistling communication sounds. It has been reported to be both nocturnal and crepuscular, sleeping on tree branches or in tree hollows during the day and increasing its activity in the late afternoon and early evening hours. It sleeps stretched out on a branch with legs dangling when it is hot, and curled up with its tail over the face when it is cold. This panda is very heat sensitive, with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 17 and 25 °C (63 and 77 °F), and cannot tolerate temperatures over 25 °C (77 °F).
Shortly after waking, red pandas clean their fur like a cat, licking their front paws and then rubbing their backs, stomachs and sides. They also rub their backs and bellies along the sides of trees or rocks. Then they patrol their territories, marking with urine and a weak musk-smelling secretion from their anal glands. They search for food running along the ground or through the trees. Red pandas may alternately use their forepaws to bring food to their mouths or place food directly into their mouths.
Predators of the red panda include the snow leopard, martens (Mustelidae), and humans. If they feel threatened or sense danger, they may try to escape by climbing a rock column or tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use the sharp claws on their front paws to defend themselves. The red panda Futa became a visitor attraction in Japan for his ability to stand upright for ten seconds at a time.
Red pandas are excellent climbers, and forage largely in trees. They eat mostly bamboo, and may eat small mammals, birds, eggs, flowers and berries. In captivity, they were observed to eat birds, flowers, maple and mulberry leaves, and bark and fruits of maple, beech and mulberry.
Like the giant panda, they cannot digest cellulose, so they must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Their diets consist of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen and grasses. Occasionally, they supplement their diets with fish and insects. They do little more than eat and sleep due to their low-calorie diets.
Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves, exhibiting the highest digestibility in summer and autumn, intermediate digestibility in the spring, and lowest digestibility in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. Red pandas process bamboo poorly, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies microbial digestion plays only a minor role in their digestive strategy. To survive on this poor-quality diet, they have to eat the high-quality sections of the bamboo plant, such as the tender leaves and shoots, in large quantities, over 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of fresh leaves and 4 kg (8.8 lb) of fresh shoots daily. This food passes through the digestive tract fairly rapidly (about 2–4 hr) so as to maximize nutrient intake. Red pandas can taste artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, the only nonprimate known to do so.
Red pandas are able to reproduce at around 18 months of age, and are fully mature at two to three years. Adults rarely interact in the wild except to mate. Both sexes may mate with more than one partner during the mating season from mid-January to early March. A few days before birth, females begin to collect material, such as brushwood, grass, and leaves, to build a nest, which is normally located in a hollow tree or a rock crevice. After a gestation period of 112 to 158 days, the female gives birth in mid-June to late July to one to four blind and deaf cubs weighing 110 to 130 g (3.9 to 4.6 oz) each.
After birth, the mother cleans the cubs and can then recognize each by its smell. At first, she spends 60% to 90% of her time with the cubs. After the first week, the mother starts spending more time outside the nest, returning every few hours to nurse and groom the cubs. She moves the young frequently among several nests, all of which she keeps clean. The cubs start to open their eyes at about 18 days of age. By about 90 days, they have achieved full adult fur and coloring, and begin to venture out of the nest. They also start eating solid foods at this point, weaning at around six to eight months of age. The cubs stay with their mother until the next litter is born in the following summer. Males rarely help raise the young, and only if they live in pairs or in small groups.
The average lifespan is between eight and 10 years, but individuals have been known to reach 15 years.
The primary threats to red pandas are direct harvest from the wild, live or dead, competition with domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in habitat loss or fragmentation. The relative importance of these factors is different in each region, and is not well understood. For instance, in India, the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China, the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching. A 40% decrease in red panda populations has been reported in China over the last 50 years, and populations in western Himalayan areas are considered to be lower.
Deforestation can inhibit the spread of red pandas and exacerbate the natural population subdivision by topography and ecology, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. Fewer than 40 animals in four separate groups share resources with humans in Nepal's Langtang National Park, where only 6% of 1,710 square kilometres (660 sq mi) is preferred red panda habitat. Although direct competition for food with domestic livestock is not significant, livestock can depress bamboo growth by trampling.
Small groups of animals with little opportunity for exchange between them face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. In addition, clearcutting for firewood or agriculture, including hillside terracing, removes old trees that provide maternal dens and decreases the ability of some species of bamboo to regenerate.
In southwest China, red pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails from which hats are produced. In these areas, the fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies. In weddings, the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The "good-luck charm" red panda-tail hats are also used by local newlyweds. This practice may be quite old, as the red panda seems to be depicted in a 13th-century Chinese pen-and-ink scroll showing a hunting scene. Little or no mention of the red panda is made in the culture and folklore of Nepal.
Thanks to CITES, this number has decreased substantially in recent years, but poaching continues, and red pandas are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices. In some parts of Nepal and India, red pandas are kept as pets.
The red panda has a naturally low birth rate (usually single or twin births per year), and a high death rate in the wild.
The red panda is listed in CITES Appendix I. The species has been classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List since 2008 because the global population is estimated at about 10,000 individuals, with a decreasing population trend; only about half of the total area of potential habitat of 142,000 km2 (55,000 sq mi) is actually being used by the species. Due to their shy and secretive nature, and their largely nocturnal habits, observation of red pandas is difficult. Therefore, population figures in the wild are determined by population density estimates and not direct counts.
Worldwide population estimates range from fewer than 2,500 individuals to between 16,000 and 20,000 individuals. In 1999, the total population in China was estimated at between 3,000 and 7,000 individuals. In 2001, the wild population in India was estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals. Estimates for Nepal indicate only a few hundred individuals. There are no records from Bhutan or Burma.
Reliable population numbers are hard to find, partly because other animals have been mistaken for the red panda. For instance, one report from Burma stated that red pandas were still fairly common in some areas, and was accompanied by a photograph of a "red panda" as proof. The photograph in question depicted a species of civet.
The red panda is protected in all range countries, and hunting is illegal. Beyond this, conservation efforts are highly variable between countries:
- China has 35 protected areas covering about 42.4% of red panda habitat.
- India has 20 protected areas with known or possible red panda populations in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal such as Khangchendzonga National Park, Namdapha National Park and Singalila National Park, and a coordinated conservation policy for the red panda.
- In Nepal, known populations occur in Langtang National Park, Sagarmatha National Park, Makalu Barun National Park, Rara National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, and in Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve.
- Bhutan has five protected areas that support red panda populations.
- Burma has 26 protected areas, of which at least one hosts red panda populations.
In situ initiatives
A community-managed forest in Ilam District of eastern Nepal is home to 15 red pandas which generate household income through tourism activities, including home stays. Villagers in the high-altitude areas of Arunachal Pradesh have formed the Pangchen Red Panda Conservation Alliance comprising five villages with a community-conserved forest area of 200 km2 (77 sq mi) at an altitude of 2,500 m (8,200 ft) to over 4,000 m (13,000 ft).
The red panda is quite adaptable to living in captivity, and is common in zoos worldwide. By 1992, more than 300 births had occurred in captivity, and more than 300 individuals lived in 85 institutions worldwide. By 2001, there were 182 individuals in North American zoos alone. As of 2006, the international studbook listed more than 800 individuals in zoos and parks around the world. Of these, 511 individuals of subspecies A. f. fulgens were kept in 173 institutions and 306 individuals of subspecies A. f. styani were kept in 81 institutions.
The International Studbook is currently managed at the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. In cooperation with the International Red Panda Management Group, they coordinate the Species Survival Plan in North America, the European Endangered Species Programme in Europe and other captive-breeding programs in Australia, India, Japan and China. In 2009, Sarah Glass, curator of red pandas and special exhibits at the Knoxville Zoo in Knoxville, Tennessee, was appointed as coordinator for the North American Red Panda Species Survival Plan. The Knoxville Zoo has the largest number of captive red panda births in the Western Hemisphere (101 as of August 2011). Only the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands has had more captive births worldwide.
Because the red panda is considered a very attractive animal, and is not much larger than a house cat, it would seem to be ideal for a pet. Despite this and reports of Indira Gandhi keeping red pandas as pets when she was a child, widespread adoption of these animals as pets has not been reported.
The taxonomic classification of the red panda has been controversial since it was discovered. French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier initially described the red panda in 1825, and classified it as a close relative of the raccoon (Procyonidae), though he gave it the genus name Ailurus, "cat", based on superficial similarities with domestic cats. The specific epithet is the Latin adjective fulgens, "shining". At various times, it has been placed in Procyonidae, Ursidae, with Ailuropoda in Ailuropodinae (until Ailuropodinae was move into Ursidae), and in its own family, Ailuridae. This uncertainty comes from difficulty in determining whether certain characteristics of Ailurus are phylogenetically conservative or are derived and convergent with species of similar ecological habits.
Evidence based on the fossil record, serology, karyology, behavior, anatomy, and reproduction reflect closer affinities with Procyonidae than Ursidae. However, ecological and foraging specializations and distinct geographical distribution in relation to modern procyonids support classification in the separate family Ailuridae.
Recent molecular systematic DNA research also places the red panda into its own family, Ailuridae, which is in turn part of the broad superfamily Musteloidea that also includes the skunk, raccoon, and weasel families.
It is not a bear, nor closely related to the giant panda, nor a raccoon, nor a lineage of uncertain affinities. Rather it is a basal lineage of musteloid, with a long history of independence from its closest relatives (skunks, raccoons, and otters/weasels/badgers).—Flynn et al., Whence the Red Panda, p197
The name Ailurus fulgens refulgens is sometimes incorrectly used for A. f. styani. This stems from a lapsus made by Henri Milne-Edwards in his 1874 paper "Recherches pour servir à l'histoire naturelle des mammifères comprenant des considérations sur la classification de ces animaux", making A. f. refulgens a nomen nudum. The most recent edition of Mammal Species of the World still shows the subspecies as A. f. refulgens. This has been corrected in more recent works, including A guide to the Mammals of China and Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volume 1: Carnivores.
The red panda is considered a living fossil and only distantly related to the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Their common ancestor can be traced back to the Early Tertiary period tens of millions of years ago, with a wide distribution across Eurasia. Fossils of the red panda Parailurus anglicus have been unearthed from China in the east to Britain in the west.
In 1977, a single tooth of the extinct panda Parailurus was discovered in the Pliocene Ringold Formation of Washington. This first North American record is almost identical to European specimens and indicates the immigration of this species from Asia. In 2004, a tooth from a red panda species never before recorded in North America was discovered at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. The tooth dates from 4.5–7 million years ago. This species, described as Pristinailurus bristoli, indicates a second, more primitive ailurine lineage inhabited North America during the Miocene. Cladistic analysis suggests Parailurus and Ailurus are sister taxa. Additional fossils of Pristinailurus bristoli were discovered at the Gray Fossil site in 2010 and in 2012. The frequency with which panda fossils are being found at Gray Fossil Site suggests the species played a large role in the overall ecosystem of the area.
The discovery in Spain of the postcranial remains of Simocyon batalleri, a Miocene relative to the red panda, supports a sister-group relationship between red pandas and giant pandas. The discovery suggests the red panda's "false thumb" was an adaptation to arboreal locomotion — independent of the giant panda's adaptation to manipulate bamboo — one of the most dramatic cases of convergent evolution among vertebrates.
Major General Thomas Hardwicke’s 1821 presentation of an article titled "Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains" at the Linnean Society in London is usually regarded as the moment the red panda became a bona fide species in Western science. Hardwicke proposed the name "wha" and explained: "It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same : hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. It is also called Chitwa." Hardwicke's paper was not published until 1827, by which time Frédéric Cuvier had published his description and a figure. Hardwicke's originally proposed taxonomic name was removed from the 1827 publication of his paper with his permission, and naming credit is now given to Cuvier.
Frédéric Cuvier had received the specimen he described from his brother's stepson, Alfred Duvaucel, who had sent it "from the mountains north of India". He was the first to use both the binomial Ailurus fulgens and the vernacular name "panda" in reference to the species in his description published in 1825 in Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères. Ailurus is adopted from the ancient Greek word αἴλουρος (ailouros), meaning "cat". The specific epithet fulgens is Latin for "shining, bright". Panda is the French name for the Roman goddess of peace and travelers, who was called upon before starting a difficult journey. Whether this is the origin of the French vernacular name panda remains uncertain. In later publications, the name is claimed to be adopted from a Himalayan language.
In 1847, Hodgson described a red panda under the name Ailurus ochraceus, of which Pocock concluded it represents the same type as Ailurus fulgens, since the description of the two agree very closely. He subordinated both types to the Himalayan red panda subspecies Ailurus fulgens fulgens.
The red panda's local names differ from place to place. The Lepcha people call it sak nam. In Nepal, the species is called bhalu biralo (bear-cat) and habre. The Sherpa people of Nepal and Sikkim call it ye niglva ponva and wah donka. The word wậː is Sunuwari meaning bear; in Tamang language, a small, red bear is called tāwām. In the Kanchenjunga region of eastern Nepal, the Limbus know red pandas as kaala, which literally means dark because of their underside pelage; villagers of Tibetan origin call them hoptongar.
Additionally, Pocock lists the vernacular names ye and nigálya ponya (Nepal); thokya and thongwa (Limbu); oakdonga or wakdonka and woker (Bhotia); saknam sunam (Lepcha). Nigálya may originate from the Nepali word निङालो niṅālo or nĩgālo meaning a particular kind of small bamboo, namely Arundinaria intermedia, but also refers to a kind of small leopard, or cat-bear. The word pónya may originate from the Nepali word पञ्जा pajā meaning claw, or पौँजा paũjā meaning paw of an animal. Nigálya pónya may translate to bamboo claw or paw.
In English, the red panda is also called lesser panda, though due to the pejorative implications of this name, "red" is generally preferred. Many other languages use red panda, or variations of shining/gold or lesser/small in their names for this species. For instance, червена панда in Bulgarian, panda roux in French, and panda rojo in Spanish all mean red panda. Since at least as far back as 1855, one of its French names has been panda éclatant (shining panda). In Finnish, it is called kultapanda (gold panda). Variations of lesser panda occur in French petit panda (small panda), in Spanish panda menor (lesser panda), in Dutch kleine panda (small panda), in Russian «малая панда» (malaya panda, "small panda"), in Korean 애기판다 (aeki panda, "baby panda"), in Japanese ressā panda (レッサーパンダ transliteration of English "lesser panda" ).
Other names attributed to this species include fire cat, bright panda and common panda.
In Chinese, the red panda is called 小熊貓 (xiăoxióngmāo, lesser or small panda), or 红熊猫/紅熊貓 (hóngxióngmāo, red panda). In comparison, the giant panda is called 大熊猫/大熊貓 (dàxióngmāo, giant or big panda), or simply 熊猫/熊貓 (xióngmāo, panda).
An anthropomorphic red panda was featured as Master Shifu, the Kung Fu teacher, in the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda and its 2011 sequel Kung Fu Panda 2. Some of the comments about this film indicate the lack of awareness about the red panda in the United States when the first film was released. Although most of the reviewers got the species correct, some nevertheless mistook it for a tiny wolf, a rodent, and a lemur. In an interview, Dustin Hoffman also indicated he did not know much about the animal when he first agreed to voice the character. The red panda Futa inspired the character of Pabu, an animal companion in the animated U.S. TV series The Legend of Korra.
In 2005, Babu, a male red panda at Birmingham Nature Centre in Birmingham, England, escaped and briefly became a media celebrity, before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted "Brummie of the Year", the first animal to receive this honor. Rusty, a male red panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., similarly attracted media attention when he briefly escaped in 2013.
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