The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a small-sized mammal species endemic to south-western China and the eastern Himalayas.
The red panda is listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered because its total wild population is estimated to be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals.
The continuous decline in population is due to frequent fragmentation and habitat loss, inbreeding depression, and poaching.
Despite the name “red panda”, this species is not closely related to the giant panda.
The red panda is known to have a long, shaggy tail, reddish-brown fur, and a waddling gait (due to its short legs).
In terms of size, it is similar to a domestic cat, though with a longer body. It is said to be arboreal and feeds primarily on bamboo, but also eats birds, eggs, and insects.
Red pandas are solitary animals and are mainly active from dusk to dawn. It is mainly sedentary during the day.
The red panda is also known by other names, and they include the red bear-cat, the red cat-bear, and the lesser panda.
The red panda is the only extant member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae. It was previously placed in the bear and raccoon families, however, the results gotten from the phylogenetic analysis supported the creation of the red panda’s taxonomic classification in its own family.
The red panda’s family (Ailuridae) is part of the superfamily Musteloidea, along with the raccoon, weasel, and skunk families.
There has been a controversy concerning the subspecies of the red panda. Traditionally, the red panda is said to have 2 subspecies, but the results of the genetic analysis indicated that 2 subspecies are probably 2 different panda species, the Himalayan red panda and the Chinese red panda.
These two species genetically diverged 0.22 million years ago.
- Himalayan red panda (A. f. fulgens)
- Chinese red panda (A. f. styani)
The red panda possesses blackish fur on the lower parts, long, soft, reddish-brown fur on the upperparts, a light face with white badges and tear markings similar to those of a raccoon.
However, each individual has its own unique markings. It has a roundish skull with medium-sized upright ears. Red pandas have blackish eyes, black nose, and robust teeth.
Its long, bushy tail consists of 6 alternating transverse ochre rings which provide balance and excellent camouflage in a habitat with lichen- and moss-covered trees.
The legs of the red panda are short and black with thick fur on the soles of the paws. Its fur acts as thermal insulation on icy or snow-covered surfaces and concealed scent glands, which are present on the anus.
The head-and-body length of a red panda measures 20 – 25 in (50 – 64 cm), and its tail is 11 – 23 in (28 – 59 cm) long. Males weigh 8.2 – 13.7 lb (3.7 – 6.2 kg) and females 6.6 – 13.2 lb (3 – 6.0 kg).
Red pandas are specialised bamboo feeders with strong, curved, and sharp claws.
Red pandas are territorial animals and are generally quiet except for some tweeting, twittering, whistling communication sounds.
It has been seen to be both crepuscular and nocturnal, sleeping on tree hollows or tree branches during the day and increased activity during the late afternoon and early evening hours.
After taking a nap, the red panda cleans its fur (similar to what a cat does), licks its front paws, and finally rubbing their torsos, backs, and sides. They rub their bellies and backs along the sides of rocks and trees.
They mark their territories by spraying a weak-smelling secretion from their anal gland and urine. They search for food running through the trees or along the ground.
Predators of the red panda include mustelids, snow leopard (Panthera uncial), and humans. If they sense danger or feel threatened, they may try to escape by climbing a tree or rock column.
They have the ability to stand upright on their hind legs for 10 seconds.
Red pandas become sexually able to reproduce at the age of 18 months. They become fully mature at 2 – 3 years. They are solitary and only interact during the mating season.
Both males and females may have more than one mating partner during the mating season from mid-January – early March. Just a few days before birth, the female gathers materials, such as grass, brushwood, and leaves, to build a nest.
This nest is usually located in a rock crevice or hollow tree. After a gestation period of 112 – 158 days, the female gives birth in mid-June – July, to 1 – 4 (averagely 1 – 2) deaf and blind cubs weighing 3.9 – 4.6 oz (110 – 130 g) each.
After cleaning the cubs, the mother recognises each of her cubs by smell. At first, she spends 60% – 90% of her time with the cubs.
After the first week of cleaning and grooming, the mother starts to spend more time outside the nest but returns every few hours to groom and nurse the cubs. The mother creates several nests in which she moves the cubs. The mother keeps all nests clean at all times.
The cubs gain their eyesight at about 18 days of age. After 90 days, the young begin to achieve full adult fur and colouring and begins to roam around outside the nest.
After this previously mentioned period, the young begin to eat solid food and are weaned at around 6 – 8 months of age.
However, the young remain with their mother until the next breeding season or when the next litter is born.
The male rarely helps raise the cubs, and only if they live in small groups or in pairs. The average lifespan of a red panda ranges between 8 – 10 years.
The red panda is an excellent climber, and forage largely in trees. It eats mostly bamboo and may also eat small mammals, eggs, birds, berries, and flowers.
In captivity, they are known to feed on flowers, birds, maple and mulberry leaves, and bark and fruits on maple, mulberry, and beech.
Similar to the giant panda, red pandas cannot digest cellulose, so they must consume a large amount of bamboo to survive.
Their diets consist of about 2/3 bamboo, but they also eat roots, mushrooms, lichens, acorns, and grasses.
They often supplement their diets with insects and fish. Due to their low-calorie diets, they do little (eat and sleep) or almost nothing.
Red pandas digest bamboo poorly, especially the cell wall and cellulose components. For the red panda to survive on this poor-quality diet, they have to ingest the high-quality parts of the bamboo plant, such as the shoots and tender leaves.
The high-quality parts of the bamboo need to be eaten in large quantities, over 3.3 lb (1.5 kg) of fresh leaves and 8.8 lb (4 kg) of fresh shoots daily.
Habitat and distribution
Red pandas are native to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, ranges from China to the foothills of western Nepal.
Its range includes Sikkim and Assam in India, southern Tibet, Bhutan, and the northern mountains of Burma.
In south-western China, it is found in the Gongshan Mountains in Yunnan and the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan.
It may also occur in northern Arunachal Pradesh and south-west Tibet; however, this has not been verified.
The red panda lives between 7,200 and 15,700 ft (2,200 and 4,800 m) altitude, inhabiting areas of moderate temperature between 50 and 77 °F (10 and 25 °C) with little annual change.
Red pandas can be found in mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forest, especially with dense understories of bamboo and old trees.