About the Red Panda
The Red Panda, or “firefox,” is often referred to as the “lesser panda” in deference to the better-known giant panda. Others prefer “first panda” – Western scientists described it 50 years earlier, and gave pandas their name. Few people outside its native habitat have even heard of the red panda, let alone seen one.
The Two Sub-species of the Red Panda
The red panda has been previously classified in the families Procyonidae (raccoons) and Ursidae (bears), but recent research has placed it in its own family Ailuridae, in superfamily Musteloidea along with Mustelidae and Procyonidae. Two subspecies are recognized:
Ailurus fulgens styani (also known as a. f. refulgens): Only found in China (in the Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan and the East Nujiang River of Yunnan Province) and northern Myanmar.
The head and body length of red pandas averages 56 to 63 cm (22 to 25 in), and their tails about 37 to 47 cm (15 to 19 in).
Red pandas are generally solitary, but there are a couple of exceptions to the rule. First, young red pandas grow relatively slowly, so they develop extended associations with their mothers that last for over a year. Second, red pandas have short relationships during the annual breeding season.
The home ranges of female red pandas often measure about one square mile, while males can live in areas twice that size. Male home ranges frequently overlap with at least one female home range and sometimes expand during the breeding season. Because red pandas constantly need to conserve energy, they only cover 650 to 1,000 feet of their home ranges per day and about 25% of their home ranges per month.
Red pandas have several ways of marking their territories and home ranges. These include urine, secretions from anal glands, and scents from glands on the pads of their feet. They have also been known to use communal latrine sites to stake out territory and share information with others. In addition, red pandas often communicate using body language (such as head bobbing and tail arching) and a variety of noises (such as a threatening “huff-quack” and a warning whistle).
(Image from Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr)
North America. These specimens date back to the Miocene (25 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 2 million years ago) periods, leading scientists to believe that bamboo and red panda-like animals have historically been found in many areas of the planet. It is likely that the range of the bamboo has increased and decreased with changes in global temperature and moisture, and fortunately for the red panda, bamboo still thrives in many parts of the southern Asia.
The red panda’s dietary specialization has an profound impact on the animal’s daily life. For one thing, bamboo is very high in indigestible fiber, making it extraordinarily difficult for red pandas to extract the nutrients that they need. Cows, horses, and other herbivorous mammals normally have very strong teeth and extra fermentation chambers in their guts. However, while red pandas have large teeth, their guts are not specialized to handle plant matter. In fact, red pandas only extract about one quarter of the nutrients from bamboo, and food passes through their digestive tract quite quickly. That means that many red pandas lose as much as 15 percent of their body weight during the winter, when their other preferred foods (such as insects) are not readily available.
To cope with the lack of food during the winter months, red pandas have evolved several ways of meeting their energy demands. For instance, red pandas can spend as much as 13 hours a day looking for and eating bamboo. They also have a very low metabolic rate (almost as low as sloths), and can slow their metabolism even further in colder temperatures. Finally, their thick fur covers their entire body, including the soles of their feet, allowing them to conserve their body heat.
(Image from Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr)
Population & Protections
The exact size of Asia’s red panda population is currently unknown, but zoos around the world have taken up the call preserve the species. More than 80 zoos currently have red pandas (find out your nearest zoo here), and almost all of them participate in a management program to ensure the survival of a viable zoo population. In North America, the red panda population management program is called the Red Panda Species Survival Program (SSP). The SSP keeps a studbook of all red pandas on the continent, determines which animals should be mated, and develops long-term research and management strategies for the species. Other management programs have been created in Japan, Europe, Australia, and China.
(Image from FurryScaly on Flickr)
Despite the amount of food that red pandas eat, they grow quite slowly, reaching adult size after 12 months. The young become sexually mature at 18 months.
As a result of these characteristics, red pandas have a slow rate of reproduction and have a great deal of difficulty recovering from population declines.
(Image from National Geographic)
Habitat & Range
Red pandas only live in temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. The temperature in this region is generally cool, and there is little annual variation. The southern slopes of the mountains trap the water from seasonal monsoons, supporting forests of firs, deciduous hardwoods, and rhododendrons. A bamboo understory grows in these forests and provides the bulk of the red panda’s diet. However, these swaths of bamboo are only found in narrow bands throughout the red panda’s range. Thus, although red pandas are distributed across thousands of miles of territory, they are restricted to these small, fragile areas because of their dependence on the bamboo plants.
(Photo by Red Panda Network)
Source: Red Panda: The Fire Cat by Miles Roberts (ZooGoer 21(2), 1992).