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Red panda
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Superfamily: Musteloidea
Family: Ailuridae
Genus: Ailurus
Binomial name
Ailurus fulgens

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a mammal 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.

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, and is somewhat heavier. 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 the lesser panda, the red bear-cat, and the red cat-bear.

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 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. Two subspecies are recognized. It is not closely related to the giant panda, which is a basal ursid.

Physical characteristics

RedPandaDescent
A red panda descending a tree head first
Ailurus fulgens skull at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum
A red panda skull

The head and body length of a red panda measures 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in), and its tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in). Males weigh 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8.2 to 13.7 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 cranio-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Their roundish heads have medium-sized upright ears, black noses, and blackish eyes. Their long, bushy tails with six alternating transverse ochre rings provide balance and excellent camouflage against their 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 icy 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 narrow tree branches, leaves, and fruit. Like the giant panda, it has a "false thumb", which is an extension of the wrist bone. When descending a tree head-first, the red panda rotates its ankle to control its descent, one of the few climbing species to do so.

Distribution and habitat

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A red panda sleeping on a tree.

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 south-western China, in the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan and the Gongshan Mountains in Yunnan. It may also live in south-west 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 north-eastern India.

The red panda lives between 2,200 and 4,800 m (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.

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). Its westernmost distribution is in Rara National Park. In 2018, red pandas were sighted at elevations of 3,150–3,650 m (10,330–11,980 ft) in Nepal's Lamjung District.

The red panda population in SichuanProvince is larger and more stable than the Yunnan population, suggesting a southward expansion from Sichuan into Yunnan in the Holocene. The red panda has become extirpated from the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Qinghai.

Behavior and ecology

Behavior

Lesser panda standing
A red panda standing on a stone

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 animal is very heat-sensitive, with an optimal "well-being" temperature between 17 and 25 °C (63 and 77 °F).

Shortly after waking, red pandas clean their fur somewhat like a cat would, licking their front paws and then rubbing their backs, torsos, 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 use their forepaws alternately to bring food to their mouths or place food directly into their mouths.

Predators of the red panda include the snow leopard, mustelids, 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. A red panda, Futa, became a visitor attraction in Japan for his ability to stand upright for ten seconds at a time. (See also: facultative biped)

Diet

Red Panda in a Gingko tree
A red panda on a ginkgo tree
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A red panda feeding on Sorbus wardii seasonal fruit in the Himalayan region
Endangered Red Panda
A red panda eating bamboo leaves

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, lichens, 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 daily nutrient intake. Red pandas can taste artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, and are the only nonprimates known to be able to do so.

Reproduction

Dortmund-Zoo-Kleiner Panda151930
A red panda tending its cub

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 (usually 1–2) 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 achieve 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.

A red panda's average lifespan is between eight and 10 years, but individuals have been known to reach 15 years.

Conservation

Red Panda (25193861686)
Closeup look of a red panda
Ailurus fulgens - 01
A red panda resting on a tree

The red panda is listed as endangered on 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 its shy and secretive nature, and its 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. It is protected in all range countries, and hunting is illegal. It is listed in CITES Appendix I.

Worldwide population estimates range from fewer than 2,500 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. Reliable population numbers are hard to find, partly because other animals have been mistaken for the red panda. For instance, one report from Myanmar stated that red pandas were still fairly common in some areas; however, the accompanying photographic proof of the "red panda" was in fact a viverrid species.

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