Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

Red panda in tree, captive

(http://www.arkive.org/red-panda/ailurus-fulgens/)

  • Name: Red panda
  • Latin: Ailurus fulgens
  • Classification: Mammal
  • Origin: Asia
  • Lifespan: Up to 8 years
  • AKA: Firefox, lesser panda, red cat-bear

Taxonomy

  • Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (vertebrates)
  • Class: Mammalia (mammals)
  • Order: Carnivora (carnivores)
  • Family: Ailuridae (red panda)
  • Genus: Ailurus (red panda)
  • Species: Ailurus fulgens (red panda)

Apperance

  • Length: 1.5-2ft (45.7-60.9cm)
  • Weight: 8-12lbs (3.6-5.4kg)

The red panda is similar to a racoon in appearance but belongs to a different family, and is the only species remaining that does so. They are covered in long red and black coast with alternating cream and red rings along their bushy tails. They have large white and black ears and a white muzzle next to which are dark red markings that drop down from the eyes. The red panda is not sexually dimorphic.

Relatives

The red panda is the only species remaining in its taxonomic family.

Habitat & Distribution

The red panda lives in high altitude bamboo forests (from 1,500 meters upwards) which it shares with the giant panda of which it has a much wider range. They can be found in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, Bhutan and northern Myanmar and can also be found residing in the Sichuan, Yunnan and Xizang provinces of China.

Map showing the distribution of the Red panda taxa

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Red_Panda)

Diet

The red panda mainly forages in trees and during the night. Two thirds of their diet is made up from bamboo however, like the giant panda, they cannot digest cellulose so must consume large quantities of the plant in order to survive. The diet of this creature is not only restricted to bamboo and will also eat a wide variety of other foods including small mammals, birds, eggs, flowers, lichen, mushrooms, roots, acorns and berries and will occasionally supplement their diets with fish and insects.

Due to their low calorie diets, the red panda does little more than eat and sleep and has a very low metabolic rate (as low as a sloths) which can drop even lower in colder temperatures. Like the giant panda, the red panda has a bony projection in their wrists which are used to help grip foodstuffs. They are also the only non-primate known to be able to taste artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame.

Behaviour

The red panda is nocturnal and generally solitary as well as territorial. They will mark the boundaries of their patch with droppings, urine and a strong musky secretion from their anal glands. They spend many daylight hours asleep and are excellent climbers and can descend from trees head first. They communicate with each other using short whistles and grunts and by wagging their tails and shaking their heads. When provoked or threatened, they will stand upright on their hind legs and produce a series of hisses and grunts.

Reproduction

Red pandas will breed between January and March and both sexes will mate with more than one partner during this time. When pregnant, the female will build a nest in a tree hole or bamboo thicket and line it with leaves, moss and other soft plant material. The gestation period lasts 2-4 months and there are 1-5 cubs in a litter, with an average of 2. The young are born blind and begin to open their eyes after a few weeks and open fully after a month.

The offspring will not leave the nest until around 3 months of age and are strong enough to negotiate complicated branches. They are fed primarily on bamboo shoots until their stomachs are strong enough to take other foods. The cubs are fully grown after a year and reach sexual maturity after 18 months.

There is a high mortality rate in young red pandas with 80% of young not reaching adulthood. This combined with their slow rate of reproduction means they have trouble recovering from population declines.

Adaptations

  • The red panda has a ‘pseudo-thumb’ which is a protrusion of the wrist bone. This is used when foraging and to help grasp foodstuffs.
  • Like the fossa, the red panda can use hind-foot mobility in which it can completely turn its ankles outward in order to descend from trees headfirst. This is advantageous as it is faster and enables a quick getaway when it reaches the floor.
  • The tail is thick and bushy which provides warmth when wrapped around the face on cold nights. It can also be used as a prop when the animal is standing on its hind legs.
  • The feet are covered in hair. This reduces heat loss and the danger of slipping on wet branches.

Threats

The biggest threat to the red panda is habitat loss. Their bamboo forests are destroyed for commercial logging, demand for firewood, expansion of habitation and agriculture and for livestock grazing. This deforestation can cause fragmentation of red panda populations which in turn can lead to inbreeding and loss of genetic variation. Their land is also destroyed to make way for road construction which can lead to landslips. Human expansion is an ever present threat to many species and the population of people had almost doubled between 1971 and 1991.

The red panda is often caught in traps meant for other animals and can be shot opportunistically by poachers. Their furs can be sold and made into caps and hats while used as a traditional symbol of happy marriage in China. In China alone, there has been a 40% decline in red panda populations over the last 50 years.

Conservation

  • IUCN Status: Vulnerable
  • Population Trend: Decreasing (as of 2008)

The red panda is protected on Appendix I of CITES and schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Act 1972 (which is the highest protection possible in the area). They are legally protected in Bhutan, China and Nepal and are found in several protected areas across their range. They are also conserved ex situ in zoos worldwide in breeding programmes, which make up an insurance population.

Conservation recommendations for the red panda include:

  • Expansion and protection of the protected area network
  • Prevention of illegal felling
  • Control of overgrazing
  • Regulation of tourism
  • Public awareness of the threatened status of the species
  • Enforcement of existing legal protection

WWF

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working with yak herders and other community groups within Nepal in effort to help reduce the human impact on red panda habitat (38% of potential habitat is found in Nepal). It is now punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to 10 years in prison if one is found guilty of killing, buying or selling a red panda or any if its products. The WWF is also encouraging the use of yak dung briquettes as an alternative fuel source to raise income instead of deforesting the existing habitat further.

WAZA

WAZA are currently in the works to establish the Gaurishankar Conservation Area with viable population and suitable habitat as a protected area for red pandas. They hope to achieve this through scientific investigation, meetings with local communities and extensive consultation.

Fun Facts

  • Male: Boar
  • Female: Sow
  • Young: Cub
  • Group: Sleuth
  • The red panda has many names, some of which include bear-cat, bright panda, cat-bear, fire fox, lesser panda, petit panda, wah and poonya.
  • The red panda can lose 15% of its body weight during the winter months.
  • The red panda is the original panda. It was first discovered in 1821 – 48 years before the giant panda was found.
  • ‘Panda’ comes from the Nepalese phrase ‘nigalya poonya’ which means ‘eater of bamboo’.
  • The firefox web browser was named after the red panda.

References

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