Red pandas are unique to the high forests of the Eastern Himalayas and are about the size of a house cat. Their thick red fur, short snouts, and pointed ears set them apart, but it’s their bushy ringed tails and teardrop-shaped markings below their eyes that really set them apart.
Red pandas spend the majority of their time in trees, moving between branches and foraging for food with their semi-retractable claws. The red panda is an endangered species with a dwindling population, yet because of its shy and secretive nature, determining the precise number of surviving individuals is challenging. 1 Here are 15 more facts about these fluffy red mammals that you might not know.
- The red panda is its common name.
- Ailurus fulgens (scientific name)
- In the wild, the average lifespan is 8 to 10 years.
- In captivity, the average lifespan is 13 years.
- Endangered according to the IUCN Red List.
- The current population is less than 10,000 people.
1. Pseudo-Thumbs in Red Pandas
Red pandas, like giant panda bears, have a pseudo-thumb, which is a stretched wrist bone that functions as a thumb but isn’t a true appendage. Red pandas use their “thumbs” to grab and grasp objects such as bamboo and tree branches in order to dine and move around. The false thumbs were inherited from a prehistoric red panda relative who likewise lived in trees but ate more carnivorously, according to a 2015 research.
2. They Aren’t Related to Giant Pandas in Any Way.
Despite their namesake, red pandas are not related to gigantic pandas. Due to their similar heads and tails, red pandas were once classified as members of the raccoon family (Procyonidae). Red pandas have been put in their own taxonomic family, the Ailuridae, which is more closely related to skunks and weasels than to the giant panda bear.
3. Red Pandas Have Been Divided Into Two Species Recently
New genetic tests have discovered that the red panda is actually two separate species: the Himalayan red panda and the Chinese red panda. Previously, the red panda was assumed to be one species with two subspecies. When populations were split by the Yalu Zangbu River some 250 thousand years ago, researchers in China discovered two distinct species. The Himalayan red panda has a whiter face than the Chinese red panda, which is larger and has darker fur.
4. Bamboo Is Their Primary Source of Nutrition.
Red pandas eat only the bamboo plant’s leaf tips and shoots, preferring short and robust bamboo shoots over tall ones. Bamboo accounts for approximately 90% of their diet, despite their digestive system’s inability to metabolize the cellulose components of plant cells. The other 10% consists primarily of berries, eggs, mushrooms, flowers, birds, and maple and mulberry leaves.
5. They Have a Carnivore Digestive System
Red pandas aren’t strictly vegetarians; they eat insects, grubs, birds, and small mammals as well. They have a carnivore digestive system that specializes in digesting protein and fats rather than the plant fibers and carbohydrates that make up the majority of their diet. 5 Red pandas also have remnants of the TAS1R1 umami taste receptor gene, which helps them to detect meat and other protein-rich diets.
6. Red Pandas Are Living Fossils on the Planet
Ancient cousins of the current red panda colonized North America between 4.5 and 12 million years ago, according to fossils discovered at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. The ancient panda, known as the Bristol’s panda (Pristinailurus bristol), was initially discovered in 2004 when East Tennessee State University researchers unearthed skeleton pieces and a solitary tooth at the famous fossil site. The fossils were discovered to be from an ancient species that had never been discovered before, and a more complete jawbone specimen was unearthed a few years later.
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7. Red Pandas Are Born With Fur on Their Bodies.
Red pandas are about as adorable as you’d expect, weighing between 3 and 4 ounces at birth. To protect themselves from the cold at high altitudes, cubs are born totally coated in fur. Red panda pups stay with their mothers for roughly a year until they are completely developed.
8. In the Wild, They Have a High Mortality Rate.
In the wild, red panda mothers have a low birth rate, delivering only two babies per year on average. Worse, pandas have a high mortality rate in their natural settings, where parasites are also a problem. According to research on Nepalese red pandas, they are very susceptible to lethal endoparasites, with a parasite incidence of 90.80% in the population investigated.
Similar problems have been observed in red pandas kept in captivity. Between 1992 and 2012, records from European institutions maintaining captive red pandas revealed that 40.2 percent of total panda deaths occurred in babies under 30 days of age, with pneumonia being the most common cause of death.
9. They Are Able to Digest Cyanide.
Over 40 distinct types of bamboo can be digested by red pandas. Red pandas, like giant pandas, have evolved to neutralize cyanide in their intestines when eating bamboo, which is high in cyanide compounds. The presence of cyanide-digesting gut microorganisms, as well as other similarities such as pseudo-thumbs and a similar genetic profile, suggests that the giant and red pandas developed these characteristics and gut microbiota separately to adapt to their overlapping bamboo diet.
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10. Outside of the Mating Season, Adult Red Pandas Keep to Themselves.
Outside of the early winter mating seasons, adult red pandas live alone and rarely interact with others. Female pandas give birth in the spring or summer following a 114 to 145-day gestation period during which they also collect sticks, grass, and leaves to build nests in hollow trees or rock crevices.
Red pandas have a very short gestation period. In a 2018 research on carnivorous animal reproductive seasonality, 80 percent of all red panda births occurred within 35 days of each other.