F. Cuvier, 1825
F. Cuvier, 1825
|Range of the red panda|
The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a carnivoran native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List because the wild population is estimated at fewer than 10,000 mature individuals and continues to decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression. Despite its name, it is not closely related to the giant panda.
The red panda has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs; it is roughly the size of a domestic cat, though with a longer body. It is arboreal and feeds mainly on bamboo, but also eats eggs, birds, and insects. It is a solitary animal, mainly active from dusk to dawn, and is largely sedentary during the day. It is also called lesser panda, red bear-cat and red cat-bear. The red panda is the only living member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae. It has previously been placed in the raccoon and bear families, but the results of phylogenetic analysis provide strong support for its taxonomic classification in its own family, Ailuridae, which is part of the superfamily Musteloidea, along with the weasel, raccoon and skunk families. Traditionally it was thought to consist of two subspecies. However, results of genetic analysis indicate that there are most likely two distinct red panda species, the Chinese red panda and the Himalayan red panda, which genetically diverged .
The name "panda" is thought to have originated from the local Nepali name for this species पञ्जा pajā "claw" or पौँजा paũjā "paw". The red panda was originally known in English as simply "panda" until after 1869 with the discovery of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), so named for its perceived resemblance to the red panda. Thus the animal became known as the red panda or "lesser panda" to distinguish it from the larger species.
The red panda was classified and formally described in 1825 by Frederic Cuvier, who gave it its current scientific name Ailurus fulgens. Cuvier's description was based on zoological specimens including skin, paws, jaw bones and teeth "from the mountains north of India", as well as an account by Alfred Duvaucel. The red panda was described earlier by Thomas Hardwicke in 1821, but his paper on it would not go to press until six years later.
In 1847, Brian Houghton Hodgson described a red panda from the Himalayas, for which he proposed the name Ailurus ochraceus. For a long time, Hodgson's accounts were all of what was known to western science of the animal's behaviour in the wild. In 1902, Oldfield Thomas described a skull of a male red panda specimen collected in Sichuan by Frederick William Styan under the name Ailurus fulgens styani.
Two subspecies have traditionally been recognised: the Himalayan red panda A. f. fulgens native to the Himalayas, and the Chinese red panda (A. f. styani) native to China. The Chinese subspecies has a more curved forehead, steeper muzzle slope, a darker coat with a redder, less white face and more contrastingly coloured tail rings. The Himalayan subspecies has a straighter profile, a lighter coloured forehead and ochre-tipped hairs on the lower back and rump. DNA sequencing of 132 red panda fecal samples collected in Northeast India and China showed two distinct clusters indicating that the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh constitutes the boundary between the Himalayan and Chinese red pandas.
In 2020, results of a phylogenetic analysis of red panda samples showed that the red panda populations in the Himalayas and China were separated by the river about 250,000 years ago, suggesting that the two subspecies should be treated as distinct phylogenetic species. The analysed samples showed high levels of population structure across the red panda's range. A 2021 study also supported red pandas being two species.
The phylogenetic placement of the red panda has been debated. In the first half of the 20th century, various scientists placed it in the family Procyonidae with raccoons and their allies. Most prominent biologists at the time also considered the red panda to be related to the giant panda and classified both in the procyonid subfamily Ailurinae. The giant panda would eventually be found to be a bear. In the 1980s, examinations of the dental and cranial similarities and differences between the red panda and the giant panda, other bears and procyonids would lead to the species being placed in its own family Ailuridae. The author of the study considered the red panda to be more closely related to bears.
A 1995 mitochondrial DNA analysis revealed that the red panda has close affinities with procyonids. Further genetic studies have placed the red panda within the clade Musteloidea, which also includes Procyonidae, Mustelidae (weasels and relatives) and Mephitidae (skunks and relatives). The following cladogram is based on molecular phylogeny of six genes, with the musteloids updated following a multigene analysis.
The family Ailuridae appears to have originated in Europe sometime during Late Oligocene or Early Miocene about . The earliest member being Amphictis which is known from its 10 cm (3.9 in) skull and may have been around the same size as the modern species. Its dentition consists of pointed premolars, relatively sharp-edged carnassials (P4 and m1) and molars with grinding surfaces (M1, M2 and m2), suggesting that it had a generalized carnivorous diet. Its placement within Ailuridae is based on the lateral grooves on its canines. Other early or basal aliruds include Alopecoyon and Simocyon, whose fossils have been found throughout Eurasia and North America dating from the Middle Miocene, the latter of which surviving into the Early Pliocene. Both have similar dentition to Amphictis and thus had a similar diet. The puma-sized Simocyon was likely a tree-climber and shares a "false thumb"—an extended wrist bone—with the modern species, suggesting the appendage was originally an adaptation to arboreal locomotion and not to feeding on bamboo.
Later and more derived ailruds are classified in the subfamily Ailurinae and are known as the "true" red pandas. These animals were smaller and more adapted for an omnivorous or herbivorous diet. The earliest known true panda is the species Magerictis imperialensis from the Middle Miocene of Spain and known only from a single tooth, a lower second molar. The tooth shows but ancestral and derived characteristics having a relatively low and uncomplex crown but also an elongated crushing surface and well-differentiated tooth cusps like later species. Later ailurines include Pristinailurus bristoli of Late Miocene-Early Pliocene eastern North America and species of the genus Parailurus which first appear in Early Pilocene Europe and spread across Eurasia into North America. These animals are likely to be part of a sister taxon to the lineage of the modern panda. In contrast to the herbivorous modern species, these ancient pandas are likely omnivores, possessing many cusps on the molars but retaining sharp premolars.
The earliest fossil record of the modern genus Ailurus date no earlier than the Pleistocene, and appears to have been limited to Asia. The modern panda's lineage became adapted for a specialized bamboo diet, having molar-like premolars and more highly crowned cusps. The false thumb would secondarily gain a function in feeding.
Analysis of the mitochondrial D-loop region of 53 red panda samples from Sichuan and Yunnan showed a high level of genetic diversity. The full genome of the red panda was sequenced in 2017. Researchers have compared it to the genome of the giant panda to learn the genetics of convergent evolution, has both species have false thumbs and are adapted for a specialized bamboo diet dispute having the digestive system of a carnivore. Both pandas show modifications to the limb developmental genes DYNC2H1 and PCNT, which may play roles in the development of the thumbs. In switching from a carnivorous to herbivorous diet, both species have reactivated taste receptor genes used for detecting bitterness, though the specific genes are different.
The red panda has a head-body length of 510–635 mm (20.1–25.0 in) with a 280–485 mm (11.0–19.1 in) tail. The Himalayan red panda is recorded to weigh 3.2–9.4 kg (7.1–20.7 lb) while the Chinese red panda may weigh 4–15 kg (8.8–33.1 lb) for females and 4.2–13.4 kg (9.3–29.5 lb) for males. The panda has a relatively small head—though propentially larger than in similarly sized raccoons—with a reduced snout and triangular ears while the limbs are nearly equal in length. The body is covered in coarse guard hairs with a soft dense, woolly undercoat. On the dorsal (back) areas, the guard hairs have a circular cross-section and are 47–56 mm (1.9–2.2 in). It has moderately long whiskers around the mouth, lower jaw and chin.
The red panda's coat has a striking colour pattern, being mainly red or orange-brown with a black belly and legs. The face is mostly white and has red marks that stretch from the side angle of the eyes to the corners of the mouth. The inside of the ears are covered in white fur with a red patch in the centre. The panda's bushy tail has alternating rings of red and buff. The colouration appears to serve as camouflage in a habitat with red moss- and white lichen-covered trees.
The red panda has five curved digits on each foot which end in curved semi-retractable claws which aid them in climbing. The pelvis and hindlimbs have flexible joints, adaptations for an arboreal quadrupedal lifestyle. While not prehensile, the tail acts as support and counterbalance when climbing.
The forepaws possess a "false thumb", which is an extension of a wrist bone, the radial sesamoid. This thumb allows the animal to hold onto bamboo stalks and separate leaves and both the digits and wrist bones give the panda remarkable dexterity. The red panda sures this feature with the giant panda, which has a larger sesamoid that is more compressed at the sides. In addition, the red panda's sesamoid has a more concave distal end while the giant panda's distal end hooks in the middle.
The skull of the panda is wide and its lower jaw is robust. However, because it eats the less fibrous parts of bamboo, the leaves and stems, it has less developed chewing muscles than the giant panda. The digestive tract of the red panda is also typical of a carnivore, being fairly short—at only 4.2 times its body length—with a simple stomach, no clear distinction between the ileum and the colon, and no caecum. Microbes in its gut may play a role in its processing of bamboo. Compared to other mammals, the microbe community in red pandas is less diverse.
Distribution and habitat
The red panda is distributed from western Nepal, southern Tibet, West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in India, Bhutan, northern Myanmar to the Hengduan Mountains and Gongshan Mountains in China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces at an elevation range of 2,500 to 4,800 m (8,200 to 15,700 ft). The current global potential habitat of the red panda has been estimated to comprise 47,100 km2 (18,200 sq mi) at most, including 22,400 km2 (8,600 sq mi) in Nepal, 13,100 km2 (5,100 sq mi) in China, 5,700 km2 (2,200 sq mi) in India, 5,000 km2 (1,900 sq mi) in Myanmar and 900 km2 (350 sq mi) in Bhutan; this habitat is located in the temperate climate zone of the Himalayas with temperature ranging from 18 to 24 °C (64 to 75 °F).
In Nepal, the red panda was recorded in six protected area complexes comprising Api Nampa–Khaptad, Dhorpatan–Rara, Annapurna–Manaslu, Langtang–Gaurishankar, Sagarmatha–Makalu Barun and Kanchenjunga Conservation Area complexes at elevations of 2,361 to 4,246 m (7,746 to 13,930 ft), mostly in sites with bamboo cover close to water sources. In Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, it was first sighted in 2007. In 2018, red pandas were also sighted outside a protected area in Nepal's Lamjung District at elevations of 3,150–3,650 m (10,330–11,980 ft). The westernmost records in Nepal to date were obtained in three community forests in Kalikot District in autumn 2019. Panchthar and Ilam Districts represent the easternmost range of the red panda in Nepal, where temperatures range from −1 to 28.9 °C (30.2 to 84.0 °F) with an annual rainfall of 2,590 mm (102 in). In the Kangchenjunga landscape of Sikkim and northern West Bengal, it lives in Khangchendzonga National Park, Singalila National Park, Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary, Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary and Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary; this metapopulation is partly connected through old-growth forests outside protected areas. It was recorded at an elevation range of 2,200–3,850 m (7,220–12,630 ft) in forests dominated by Himalayan oak (Quercus lamellosa), Himalayan birch (Betula utilis), Himalayan fir (Abies densa) with Yushania bamboo and Rhododendron growing in the understorey.
In Bhutan, it inhabits coniferous and temperate broadleaf and mixed forests with undergrowth of Yushania and Thamnocalamus bamboo and Sorbus shrubs at elevations of 2,000–4,300 m (6,600–14,100 ft). It has been recorded in six wildlife corridors and eight protected areas including Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve, Jigme Dorji National Park, Wangchuck Centennial National Park, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, Phrumsengla National Park and Jomotsangkha Wildlife Sanctuary. Records in Arunachal Pradesh's Pangchen Valley indicate that it prefers habitats with bamboo and medium-sized Rhododendron and Sorbus trees. It was also photographed near villages in West Kameng and Shi Yomi districts in habitats dominated by bamboo, oak, maples and Castanopsis.
In southern Tibet, it was photographed in Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Nature Reserve during a 2018-19 survey. In Myanmar, the red panda was sighted only in the northernmost montane part of the country in three protected areas including Hkakaborazi National Park and Hponkanrazi Wildlife Sanctuary above 2,500 m (8,200 ft). In China, the red panda occurs in the Qionglai, Xiaoxiang, Daxiangling and Liangshan Mountains in Sichuan, where 21 nature reserves and wildlife corridors provide an area of about 10,230 km2 (3,950 sq mi) suitable habitat at elevations of 2,047 to 3,756 m (6,716 to 12,323 ft). In Sichuan’s Yele Natural Reserve, it frequents steep slopes with a high density of bamboo culms, fallen logs and shrubs. In Yunnan, it was recorded in 11 counties in the northwestern montane part of the province in the mid 1990s, but is locally extinct in four provinces of central China.
Behaviour and ecology
The red panda appears to be both nocturnal and crepuscular. Reports from captivity suggest that it sleeps in between periods of activity at night. It typically rests or sleeps in trees or other elevated spaces, 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. It is adapted for climbing, and descends to the ground head-first with the hindfeet holding on to the middle of the tree trunk. It moves quickly on the ground by trotting or bounding.
Adult pandas are generally solitary and territorial. Individuals mark their home range or territorial boundaries with urine, faeces and secretions from the anal and surrounding glands. Scent-marking occurs more on the ground and males mark more often and for longer periods then females. In China's Wolong National Nature Reserve, the home range of a radio-collared female was 0.94 km2 (0.36 sq mi) while that of a male 1.11 km2 (0.43 sq mi). Home ranges are reported to be larger in Nepal with 1.7–9.6 km2 (0.66–3.71 sq mi) for males and 1–1.5 km2 (0.39–0.58 sq mi) for females.
A one-year long monitoring study of ten red pandas in eastern Nepal showed that the four males had median home ranges of 1.73 km2 (0.67 sq mi) and the six females of 0.94 km2 (0.36 sq mi) within a forest cover of at least 19.2 ha (47 acres). They were most active from dawn to the early mornings. The females travelled 419–841 m (1,375–2,759 ft) per day and the males 660–1,473 m (2,165–4,833 ft). In the mating season from January to March, adults travelled a mean of 795 m (2,608 ft) and subadults a mean of 861 m (2,825 ft). They all had larger home ranges in areas with low forest cover and reduced their activity in areas that were disturbed by people, livestock and dogs.
Diet and feeding
The red panda is herbivorous and feeds primarily on bamboo, mainly the genera Phyllostachys, Sinarundinaria, Thamnocalamus and Chimonobambusa. It mainly eats the leaves of these plants, which are often the only available food item in the winter and the most common food the rest of the year. In Wolong, leaves of Bashania fangiana were found in nearly 94% of analysed droppings, and its shoots were found in 59% of the droppings found in June. Red pandas also feed on fruits of Sorbus species as well as blossoms, acorns, eggs, birds and small mammals.
The red panda grabs food with one of its front paws and usually eats sitting down or standing, but sometimes lays on its back. When foraging for bamboo, it grabs the plant by the culm and bends it down so the leaves are within reach of the jaws. It inserts them into the side and shears then chews them. It nips small food like blossoms, berries and small leaves with the incisors. The red panda is a poor digester of bamboo, and it passes though its gut between two and four hours. The red panda hence has to select the more nutritious plant matter, such as tender leaves and shoots and consume them in large quantities. Bamboo is most digestible in summer and fall but least in winter, and shoots are more digestible than leaves.
At least seven different vocalisations have been recorded in the red panda, comprising growls, barks, squeals, hoots, bleats, grunts and twitters. Growling, barking, grunting and squealing are produced during fights and aggressive chasing. Hooting is made in response to being approached by another individual. Bleating is recorded after scent-marking and sniffing and males may bleat during courtship, particularly before mounting, while twittering is made by mating females.
During both play fighting and aggressive fighting, individuals arch their backs and tails while slowly moving their heads up and down. They then turn their heads while jaw-clapping, move the head side to side and raise a forepaw with an intent to strike. They adopt a bipedal posture with the forelimbs raised above the head before lunging. "Staring" occurs between individuals that are some distance away from each other. Receptive females make tail-flicks and position themselves in a lordosis pose, with the front lowered and the back ached.
Reproduction and parenting
Much of what is known about red panda reproduction comes from captivity. Red pandas are "long-day" breeders, meaning that breeding occurs as the length of daylight increases following the winter solstice. Mating thus occurs mostly between January and March with births taking place from May to August. For captive pandas in the southern hemisphere, reproduction is delayed by six months. Oestrous lasts a day, and female can enter oestrous multiple times a season, but the length of intervals between each cycle are not clear.
As the breeding season begins, there are increased interactions between males and females, who will rest, move and feed close to each other. Oestrous females are observed to mark more often and more vigorously and males will sniff their anogenital region. Copulation involves the male mounting the female from behind and on top, though face-to-face matings as well as belly-to-back matings while lying on the sides have been observed. The male usually does not bite the female's neck but will grab her sides with his front paws. Mountings are 2–25 minutes long and the couple may groom each other between mounting bouts.
Gestation lasts about 158 days. Prior to giving birth, the female selects a denning site, such as a tree, log or stump hollow or rock crevice, and builds a nest using material from nearby. Litter sizes typically consist of one to four cubs that are born fully furred but blind. They are entirely dependent on their mother for the first three to four months, until they emerge from the nest. They nurse for their first five months. Mother and offspring stay together until the next breeding. Cubs reach their adult size at around 12 months and sexual maturity at around 18 months. Their lifespan in captivity reaches 14 years.
The primary threats to the red panda are destruction and fragmentation of habitat caused by multiple circumstances such as increasing human population, deforestation, illegal collection of non-timber forest products and poaching, disturbances by herders and livestock, lack of law enforcement and funding. 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. Deforestation inhibits the dispersal of red pandas and leads to severe fragmentation of the population. Trampling by livestock can depress bamboo growth. In Nepal's Langtang National Park, only 6% of 1,710 km2 (660 sq mi) is preferred red panda habitat, and fewer than 40 animals in four separate groups share resources with humans. Throughout Nepal, red panda habitat outside protected areas is negatively affected by livestock trails and herding stations, solid waste, and people collecting firewood and medicinal plants. Vehicular traffic is a significant barrier to red panda movement between habitat patches.
In Nepal's Taplejung District, red panda claws are used for treating epilepsy; its skin is used in rituals for treating sick people, for making hats, scarecrows and decorating houses. Between 2008 and 2018, 121 skins were confiscated in the country. In Myanmar, the red panda is threatened by hunting using guns and traps; since roads to the border with China were built starting in the early 2000s, red panda skins and live animals are traded and smuggled across the border. In south-west China, the red panda is hunted for its fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails, from which hats are produced. The fur is 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 newly-weds. 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 smaller. 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.
The red panda is listed in CITES Appendix I and protected in all range countries; hunting is illegal. It has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2008 because the global population is estimated at 10,000 individuals, with a decreasing population trend.
A red panda anti-poaching unit and community-based monitoring has been established in Langtang National Park. Members of Community Forest User Groups also protect and monitor red panda habitats in other parts of Nepal. Community outreach programs have been initiated in eastern Nepal using information boards, radio broadcasting and the annual International Red Panda Day in September; several schools endorsed a red panda conservation manual as part of their curriculum. Since 2010, community-based conservation programmes have been initiated in 10 districts in Nepal, all aiming to help villagers reduce their dependence on natural resources through improved herding and food processing practises, and alternative income possibilities. The Nepal government ratified a five-year Red Panda Conservation Action Plan in 2019. During 2016 to 2019, 35 ha (86 acres) high elevation rangelands in Merak, Bhutan were restored and fenced in cooperation with 120 herder families to protect red panda forest habitat and improve communal pasture. Villagers in Arunachal Pradesh established two community conservation areas to protect red panda habitat from disturbance and exploitation of forest resources.
The London Zoo acquired two red pandas in 1869 and 1876 caught alive in Darjeeling. The Calcutta Zoo received a live red panda in 1877, the Philadelphia Zoo in 1906, and Artis and Cologne Zoos in 1908. In 1908, the first red panda cubs were born in an Indian zoo. In 1940, the San Diego Zoo imported four red pandas via India that had been caught in Nepal; their first litter was born in 1941. Later born cubs were sent to other zoos, so that about 250 red pandas had been exhibited in zoos by 1969. In 1978, the International Red Panda Studbook was set up, followed by the Red Panda European Endangered Species Programme in 1985. Members of international zoos ratified a global masterplan for the captive breeding of the red panda in 1993. By the end of 2019, 182 European zoos kept 407 red pandas. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park participates in the Red Panda Species Survival Plan and kept about 25 red pandas by 2016.
The red panda is depicted in a hunting scene of a Chinese Chou Dynasty scroll dating to the 13th century. In western Nepal, shamans of an ethnic group use its skin and fur in their ritual dresses and believe that it protects against evil spirits. Tribal people in Arunachal Pradesh and Yi people also believe that it brings good luck to wear red panda tails or hats made of its fur. People in central Bhutan consider red pandas to be reincarnations of Buddhist monks.
A watercolor painting by an Indian artist dating to 1820 is among the earliest known paintings of the red panda. The red panda was recognized as the state animal of Sikkim in the early 1990s and was the mascot of the Darjeeling Tea Festival. Anthropomorphic red pandas feature in animated movies/TV series such as Bamboo Bears, Barbie as the Island Princess, the Kung Fu Panda franchise, Aggretsuko and Turning Red, and in several video games and comic books. The red panda is the namesake of the Firefox browser, and it has been used as namesake of companies and music bands.
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