It’s the only one of its kind. Literally. The red panda is not part of the bear family and is not a strange variant to the giant panda. The red panda is alone in its genus, making it the only species in the family Ailuridae. Everyone has had trouble truly deciding where in the “evolutionary tree” it belongs because of its similarities to the raccoon family (Procyonidae), bear family (Ursidae), and the giant panda (Ailuropodidae). But do you know which “panda” was discovered first?
The red panda! It was actually first sited in 1827, while the panda was first documented in 1869! This means that the “Red Panda” is the original panda.
So where can this “original” panda be found? Although it is endangered, a few still live out their 14-year wild lives in the Himalayas from Nepal to S. China. But where in these tropical mountainous regions they choose to habitat is interesting: red pandas are completely comfortable overlapping areas between sexes and even between males, but very rarely will females overlap territory.
These predominantly tree-dwelling guys, as you can tell from the photos, have a coarse, thick ruddy/chestnut-coloured fur on their back. Their underbelly is usually a darker auburn, while their face and ears often have patterns of white. Beneath their thick top coat of hair is a woolly underlayer that keeps them warm and dry in the cold yet moist tropics. Another adaptation for staying warm are their hairy feet (like a hobbit!). Unlike Frodo Baggins, their hair is both on top of the foot but also on the underpadding of the paw. The only other animal to have a similar adaptation is the arctic polar bear.
Another thing that sets the red panda apart from many other creatures is its “radial sesmoid” i.e. its “thumb”, which it uses for tearing leaves. Because the giant panda also shares this trait, some scientists still think that they are the closest relatives to the red panda. This will probably be debated for years to come…
Its stomach is typical of most carnivores: simple with no cecum, which is an organ often used to digest/ferment fibre through the aid of bacteria. Red pandas have these dark green anal glands right next to their anal openings that are used for secreting odors. These odors are thought to be used for marking territory and even communicating.
Although built to be a carnivore, they are folivores, or leaf-eaters. They eat mostly bamboo leaves and shoots, though they also forage on the ground for roots, nutrient-rich grasses, fallen fruits, insects, and grubs. Because their diet consists of hard-to-digest feeds, they do have some symbiotic (friendly) bacteria that help them digest these foods. In return, the red panda provides the bacteria a nice gut to live in with its endless supply of food. (FYI: if you’ve ever heard of taking probiotics, it is so that you as a human can conserve the “good” bacteria in your gut for purposes such as better digestion.)
So let’s say you’re on a Gabby Wild adventure trekking through Nepal, and you want to find a red panda. (Let’s also pretend that Gabby Wild has gone hiding in a tree and cannot be found to help you.) When should you go out looking for these guys? They are crepuscular, meaning that they are active during twilight from dawn until dusk. The get up and active at 11 PM and are only active ~ 56% of the day. Their lack of day-activity is most likely a way for them to conserve energy due to their low-energy diet. Red pandas mate in winter, which is also when preferred fruits are widely spaced. During this time, red pandas are a little more active (63% of the day).
Now that you are late-night panda partying in the tropics of Asia on the lookout for a red panda, what should you perk your ears to hearing? Red pandas make various squeaks and twitters, but they make one in particular that is hard to miss: the “quack-snort”. You can still identify a red panda by its little hisses and jaw claps, though “quack-snorting” is the key way to identify a red panda by ear.
Cool critter, right?
Happy Wacky Wednesday!