The red panda (Ailurus fulgens), also called the lesser panda, the red bear-cat, and the red cat-bear, is a mammal native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. It 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 somewhat heavier. It is arboreal, 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.
The red panda has been classified as endangered by the IUCN, because its wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 mature individuals and continues to decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression, although red pandas are protected by national laws in their range countries.
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.
A red panda descending with its head.
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
A red panda lies sleeping on a high branch of a tree, with tail stretched out behind and legs dangling on each side of the branch
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.
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). The species’ westernmost limit is in Rara National Park located farther west of the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. Their presence was confirmed in 2008.
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.
The red panda population in Sichuan Province 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.