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The Red Panda

The red panda is dwarfed by the black-and-white giant that shares its name. These pandas typically grow to the size of a house cat, though their big, bushy tails add an additional 18 inches. The pandas use their ringed tails as wraparound blankets in the chilly mountain heights.

About

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a mammal species 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, 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 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 probably two distinct red panda species, the Chinese red panda and the Himalayan red panda, which genetically diverged 0.22 million years ago

Physical Description

Red pandas can be easily identified by their unique ruddy coat color, which acts like camouflage within the canopy of fir trees where branches are covered with clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens.

They have large, round heads and short snouts with big, pointed ears. Their faces are white with reddish-brown “tear” marks that extend from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. These markings could have evolved to help keep the sun out of their eyes. Their tails are marked with alternating red and buff rings.

Red pandas have a soft, dense woolly undercoat covered by long, coarse guard hairs. Long, bushy tails help these arboreal animals maintain balance and protect them from harsh cold and winds. Dense fur completely covers their feet which have five, widely separated toes and semi-retractable claws.

Red pandas scent-mark territories using anal glands and urine, as well as scent glands located between their footpads. These scent glands on the bottom of red pandas’ feet exude a colorless liquid that is odorless to humans. The red panda tests odors using the underside of its tongue, which has a cone-like structure for collecting liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside its mouth. It is the only carnivore with this adaptation.

Red pandas are skilled climbers, using trees for shelter, to escape predators and to sunbathe in the winter. Their ankles are extremely flexible, and the fibula and tibia are attached in such a way as to allow the fibula to rotate about its axis. These features make it possible for red pandas to adeptly climb headfirst down tree trunks.

In contrast with other carnivores their size, red pandas have extremely robust dentition. They also have a simple carnivore stomach, despite their predominantly leaf-based diet. Red pandas share the giant panda’s pseudo-thumb, a modified wrist bone used to grasp bamboo when feeding.

Red pandas are the only living member of the Ailuridae family, and their taxonomic position has long been a subject of scientific debate. They were first described as members of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) — a controversial classification — in 1825, because of ecological characteristics and morphological similarities of the head, dentition and ringed tail. Later, due to some agreements in DNA, they were assigned to the bear family (Ursidae).

Size

Adult red pandas typically weigh between 8 and 17 pounds (3.6 and 7.7 kilograms) and are 22 to 24.6 inches (56 to 62.5 centimeters) long, plus a tail of 14.6 to 18.6 inches (37 to 47.2 centimeters).

Habitat and Behavior

The red panda shares the giant panda's rainy, high-altitude forest habitat, but has a wider range. Red pandas live in the mountains of Nepal and northern Myanmar (Burma), as well as in central China.

These animals spend most of their lives in trees and even sleep aloft. When foraging, they are most active at night as well as in the gloaming hours of dusk and dawn.

Red pandas have a taste for bamboo but, unlike their larger relatives, they eat many other foods as well—fruit, acorns, roots, and eggs. Like giant pandas, they have an extended wrist bone that functions almost like a thumb and greatly aids their grip.

Communication

Red pandas are generally quiet, but subtle vocalizations—such as squeals, twitters and huff-quacks—can be heard at close proximity. They may also hiss or grunt, and young cubs use a whistle, or high-pitched bleat, to signal distress. Red pandas will climb trees and rocks to escape predators, such as leopards and jackals.

Breeding and Population

They are shy and solitary except when mating. Females give birth in the spring and summer, typically to one to four young. Young red pandas remain in their nests for about 90 days, during which time their mother cares for them. (Males take little or no interest in their offspring.)

The red panda has given scientists taxonomic fits. It has been classified as a relative of the giant panda, and also of the raccoon, with which it shares a ringed tail. Currently, red pandas are considered members of their own unique family—the Ailuridae.

Red pandas are an at-risk species, victims of deforestation. Their natural space is shrinking as more and more forests are destroyed by logging and the spread of agriculture.

Food/Eating Habits

Bamboo constitutes about 95% of the red panda's diet. Unlike giant pandas that feed on nearly every above-ground portion of bamboo (including the culm, or woody stem), red pandas feed selectively on the most nutritious leaf tips and, when available, tender shoots.

Like giant pandas, red pandas grasp plant stems using their forepaws and shear selected leaves off with their mouths. Because red pandas are obligate bamboo eaters, they are on a tight energy budget for much of the year. They may also forage for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects and grubs, and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.

At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, red pandas eat bamboo, bamboo shoots (when in season) and leafeater biscuits. They are receive enrichment treats, such as apples, grapes, bananas, blueberries and other produce.

Threats

The primary threats to red pandas are direct harvest from the wild, live or dead, competition with domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in habitat loss or fragmentation. The relative importance of these factors is different in each region, and is not well understood.[11] For instance, in India, the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China, the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching.[1] 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 lower.

Deforestation

Deforestation can inhibit the spread of red pandas and exacerbate the natural population subdivision by topography and ecology, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. Fewer than 40 animals in four separate groups share resources with humans in Nepal's Langtang National Park, where only 6% of 1,710 km2 (660 sq mi) is preferred red panda habitat. Although direct competition for food with domestic livestock is not significant, livestock can depress bamboo growth by trampling.

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.

Fur

In south-west China, red pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails, from which hats are produced. In these areas, the fur is often 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. 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.

Capitivity

In the past, red pandas were captured and sold to zoos. In an article appearing in the International Zoo News in 1969, one reported he personally had handled 350 red pandas in 17 years. Due to CITES, this zoo harvest has decreased substantially in recent years, but poaching continues, and red pandas are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices. In some parts of Nepal and India, red pandas are kept as pets.

Birth Rate

The red panda has a naturally low birth rate (usually one single or twin birth per year), and a high death rate in the wild.

Conservation

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.[19] In 2001, the wild population in India was estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals.[12] 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.[33]

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