Red Pandas are beautiful, elusive, almost secretive animals that live in mountain forests in Asia. They are adorably cute, they have several amazing adaptations for their environment, and their number in the wild is dropping fast – Red Pandas are endangered, and they will need human help to survive.
Male and female Red Pandas are the same size, about the size of a housecat. They have dense fur with beautiful coloration. The Red Panda’s scientific name (Ailurus fulgens) translates to “fire-colored cat” or “fire fox,” and you can see how they got that name. An adult Red Panda’s back is a fiery orange-red, its belly and legs are black, and its tail is long and striped with rings of red and white. Its head is round, with a short snout and short, pointed ears. Its face resembles the face of a racoon or a weasel, with a “mask” of red, white jowls and snout, and dark “tear tracks” trailing down from its eyes. Male and female Red Pandas have this same pattern of coloration. A Red Panda’s colors stand out when you see one in the open, but they provide excellent camouflage when the animal is in trees in its natural habitat.
Today, Red Pandas live in a narrow range of land in the mountains of India, Nepal, and China, but by studying fossils from around the world, biologists have learned that Red Pandas once roamed wide areas. In fact, these fossils show that about 40 million years ago, there were Red Pandas in many parts of what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. Modern-day Red Pandas resemble racoons and weasels, and fossils confirm that they are related to these species, but biologists who have studied the genes of these animals and scientists who have studied their behavior and habitat have concluded that the relationship between Red Pandas and racoons and weasels is not really very close.
What about Giant Pandas? Red Pandas and Giant Pandas share part of their names, of course, and they eat similar diets, but they really are not at all close to each other in evolution. So why are they both called pandas? Well, the name “panda” may have come from a word in one of the local languages around their natural habitat that roughly translates to “bamboo eater” – and eating bamboo is something Red Pandas and Giant Pandas certainly have in common! In the end, though, most scientists conclude that Red Pandas are their own branch of the evolutionary tree, called the Ailuridae.
They may not be close evolutionary cousins, but Red Pandas and Giant Pandas do have an unusual anatomical feature in common – they both have a “false thumb.” This is due to having a wrist bone (the sesamoid bone) that has evolved to protrude and function a bit like a thumb. This “false thumb” is really useful for holding and stripping leaves off bamboo. When species that are not closely related have similar evolutionary adaptations like this one, biologists call it “convergent evolution.”
Red Pandas have other unusual characteristics, and one is their diet. Red Pandas eat mainly plants. Most of their diet is bamboo leaves and shoots – they eat about one-third of their body weight in bamboo every day! – but they also eat leaves of other trees, berries, mushrooms, bird eggs, and sometimes even small animals.
Red Pandas are sometimes called “herbivorous carnivorans.” What in the world does that mean? Red Pandas’ closest animal relatives – racoons and weasels – are true carnivores. They eat a lot of meat. A Red Panda’s digestive tract is like that of a true carnivore, with a single-chambered stomach and a relatively short intestine. And as with true carnivores, their intestines don’t contain the microbes that most herbivores have for efficiently digesting plant material, so they don’t efficiently extract nutrients from the plants they eat.
Red Pandas’ teeth, though, have features of both carnivores and herbivores. They have incisors like (other) carnivores, but they also have large, relatively flat molars like herbivores. And their molars have ridges on top that help the Red Panda to grind up tough plant material like bamboo. Because their digestive tracts extract little of the nutrients from the plants they eat, though, pandas spend almost all their time either eating or sleeping. Taking all of this together, “herbivorous carnivorans” seems like a tailor-made description for Red Pandas!
Red Pandas in the wild are solitary animals except during breeding season, and usually hide from predators and humans. Individuals use urine and secretions from scent glands to mark the boundaries of their territories. Their solitary lifestyle and good camouflage make it tricky for people to find them in the wild and difficult for wildlife biologists to observe their behavior or count them accurately. Most wildlife biologists who study Red Pandas, though, estimate that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild.
This small a number of animals, combined with the fragmentation of their natural habitat, increases the risk of genetic inbreeding in the wild populations that can weaken the species as a whole and accelerate their disappearance. And the number of Red Pandas in the wild is dropping – biologists estimate that there only half as many Red Pandas in the world today as there were just 20 years ago. They are definitely an endangered species!
But why are Red Pandas disappearing? A major factor is that the wild forests they live in are more and more being used for logging or are being cut for farmland, so the Red Pandas’ natural habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. Other important factors in the decline of Red Pandas in the wild are the illegal wildlife trade and poaching for fur.
Almost all the Red Pandas in the top zoos in North America and Europe have been born and raised in zoos. Many of these AZA-accredited zoos have developed a “Species Survival Plan” for Red Pandas, in which they work together to share information about caring for Red Pandas and managing their breeding. In the protected environment of reputable zoos, Red Pandas are being bred to maintain the genetic diversity that will make them hardy if and when they need to be introduced into dwindling populations in the wild.
Zoos that participate in the Species Survival Plan also support efforts to preserve the Red Panda’s natural habitat in Asia and to find ways for Red Pandas in the wild to live in minimal conflict with humans. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson plans to help in these efforts by joining the Species Survival Plan when the Zoo adds Red Pandas to its collection of endangered species in its Pathway to Asia expansion. And of course when the Red Pandas arrive, the Zoo will be adding a large helping of adorably cute!