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The Red Panda, also called the Firefox or Lesser Panda (taxonomic name: Ailurus fulgens, "shining cat"), is a small arboreal mammal and the only species of the genus Ailurus. Slightly larger than a domestic cat, it has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs. It eats mainly bamboo, but is omnivorous and may also eat eggs, birds, insects, and small mammals. It is a solitary animal, mainly active at dusk, dawn, and night, and is largely sedentary during the day.

Endemic to the temperate forests of the Himalayasmarker, the Red Panda ranges from Nepalmarker in the west to Chinamarker in the east. It is also found in northern Indiamarker, Bhutanmarker and northern Myanmarmarker. Accurate population figures in the wild are difficult to find, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 20,000 worldwide. Although it is protected by law in all countries where it lives, its numbers in the wild continue to decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.

The Red Panda is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list (2009.01), and is listed in CITES appendix I. It has been previously classified in the families Procyonidae (raccoon) and Ursidae (bears), but recent research has placed it in its own family Ailuridae. Two subspecies are recognized.

The Red Panda is quite adaptable to living in captivity and is common in zoos worldwide. As of 2006 the international studbook listed more than 800 individuals in zoos and parks around the world.

Etymology

The English soldier and naturalist Thomas Hardwicke introduced the Red Panda to Europeans in 1821, giving it the name by which it is known in English. The Western word "Panda" has no conclusive source. The names nigalya ponya and nyala ponga are often mentioned, and are said to mean "eater of bamboo" in Nepali. However, none of these words appear in Nepali-English dictionaries. The Red Panda is also known as the Wah because of its distinctive cry, and has been called a Cat Bear because it was thought to be related to a small bear and washes itself like a cat by licking its entire body. Other names include Lesser Panda, Bear Cat, Bright Panda, Common Panda, Fire Fox, Red Fox, Fox Bear, Himalayan Raccoon, Cokoloaca Pigara, Gambawarella, Nigalya Ponya, Panda Chico, Panda Éclatant, Petit Panda, Poonya, Crimson Ngo, Red Cat, Sankam, Small Panda, Thokya, Wokdonka, Woker and Ye.

Phylogenetics

The taxonomic classification of the Red Panda has been controversial since it was discovered. French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier initially described the Red Panda in 1825, and classified it as a close relative of the Raccoon (Procyonidae), even though he gave it the genus name Ailurus "cat" based on superficial similarities with domestic cats. The specific epithet is the Latin adjective fulgens "shining". At various times it has been placed in Procyonidae, Ursidae, with Ailuropoda in Ailuridae, and in its own family, Ailuridae. This uncertainty comes from difficulty determining whether certain characteristics of Ailurus are phylogenetically conservative or are derived and convergent with species of similar ecological habits.

Evidence based on the fossil record, serology, karyology, behavior, anatomy, and reproduction reflect closer affinities with Procyonidae than Ursidae. However, ecological and foraging specializations and distinct geographical distribution in relation to modern Procyonids support classification in a separate family (Ailuridae).

Recent molecular-systematic DNA research also places the Red Panda into its own family Ailuridae, which is in turn part of the broad superfamily Musteloidea that also includes the Mephitidae (skunks), Procyonidae (raccoons), and Mustelidae (weasels) families.

Subspecies

There are two extant subspecies of Red Panda. The Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens F. G. Cuvier, 1825) lives in the western part of its range (Nepalmarker, Assammarker, Sikkimmarker and Bhutanmarker), and the somewhat larger Styan's Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens refulgens Milne-Edwards, 1874 or Ailurus fulgens styani Thomas, 1902) lives in the east-northeastern part of its range (southern Chinamarker and northern Myanmarmarker). As of 2009, there is still some confusion about the subspecies names. Some sources including the studbook show the name of the Eastern subspecies as styani while other sources show it as refulgens. The Western subspecies has a lighter pelage (coat), especially in the face, while the Styan's Red Panda has more pronounced facial markings.

Evolutionary history

The Red Panda is only distantly related to the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Their common ancestor can be traced back to the Early Tertiary Period tens of millions of years ago, with a wide distribution across Eurasia. Fossils of the Red Panda have been unearthed from Chinamarker in the east to Britainmarker (Parailurus anglicus) in the west (Hu, 1990,Ro). Fossils considered to be a new genus and species of the Red Panda (Pristinailurus bristoli) from the Miocene Epoch were recently discovered in North America.

Distribution and habitat

The Red Panda is found mainly in temperate forests in the Himalayas, especially in the foothills of western Nepalmarker, southern Tibet, Sikkimmarker, Assammarker and Bhutanmarker, in the northern mountains of Myanmarmarker, and in southern China in the provinces of Sichuanmarker (Hengduan Mountains) and Yunnanmarker (Gongshan Mountains). It may also live in southwest Tibet and northern Arunachal Pradeshmarker, but this has not been documented. The Red Panda has become extinct in the Chinese provinces of Guizhoumarker, Gansumarker, Shaanximarker and Qinghaimarker.

The effective population size of the Sichuanmarker population is larger and more stable than that of the Yunnanmarker population, implying a southward expansion from Sichuan to Yunnan. 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.

Distribution of the Red Panda is disjointed. The Brahmaputramarker river, where it makes a curve around the eastern end of the Himalayasmarker, is often considered the natural division between the two subspecies, although some authors suggest that A. f fulgens extends farther eastward, into China.

The Red Panda lives between altitude, inhabiting areas of moderate temperature (between ) with little annual change. It prefers mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests, especially with old trees and dense understories of bamboo.

Biology and behavior

Red Panda in a tree

Physical characteristics

The Red Panda is long, including the tail length of . Males weigh ; females . It has long, soft reddish-brown fur on its upper parts, blackish fur on its lower parts, and a light face with tear markings and robust cranial-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Its long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ochre rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black, short with thick fur on the soles of the paws hiding scent glands and serving as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces.

The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for grasping of narrow tree branches, leaves and fruit. Like the Giant Panda, it has a “false thumb” that is an extension of the wrist bone.

Red Panda sleeping


Behavior

Sounds of Red Panda chirping
The Red Panda has been reported to be both nocturnal (most active at night) and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), sleeping on tree branches or in tree hollows during the day and increasing its activity only in the late afternoon and early evening hours. It sleeps stretched out on a branch with legs dangling when it is hot, and curled up with its tail over its face when it is cold. It is very heat sensitive, with an optimal “well-being” temperature between , and cannot tolerate temperatures over .

Red Panda standing
Shortly after waking, the Red Panda cleans its fur like a cat, licking its front paws and then rubbing its back, stomach and sides. It also rubs its back and belly along the sides of trees or rocks. Then it patrols its territory, marking it with a weak musk-smelling secretion from its anal gland and with its urine. It searches for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees. It uses its front paws to place the food into its mouth, and drinks by plunging a paw into the water and then licking the paw.

The Red Panda is territorial. Adults are solitary except during mating season. It is generally quiet except for some twittering and whistling communication sounds. Predators of the Red Panda include the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), martens (Mustelidae), and people.

If a Red Panda feels threatened or senses danger, it may try to escape by climbing a rock column or tree. If it can no longer flee, it stands on its hind legs to make itself appear larger and uses the sharp claws on its front paws to defend itself.

Red Pandas eating bamboo


Diet

The Red Panda eats mostly bamboo. Like the Giant Panda, it cannot digest cellulose, so it must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Its diet consists of about two-thirds bamboo, but it also eats berries, fruit, mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen, and grasses. It occasionally supplements its diet with young birds, fish, eggs, small rodents, and insects. In captivity it readily eats meat. The Red Panda is an excellent climber, and forages largely in trees. The Red Panda does little more than eat and sleep due to its low-calorie diet.

Red Panda gnawing on an exfoliated bamboo bush
Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves. They exhibit the highest digestibility in the summer and autumn, intermediate digestibility in the spring, and lowest digestibility in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. The Red Panda processes bamboo poorly, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies that microbial digestion plays only a minor role in its digestive strategy. In order to survive on this poor-quality diet, the Red Panda has to eat the high-quality sections of the bamboo plant such as the tender leaves and shoots in large quantities (over of fresh leaves and of fresh shoots daily). This food passes through the digestive tract fairly rapidly (~2–4 hours) so as to maximize nutrient intake. The Red Panda can taste artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, the only known non-primate to be able to do so.

Red Panda cubs playing


Reproduction

Red Panda adults rarely interact in the wild except to mate. Both sexes may mate with more than one partner during the mating season (mid-January to early March). A few days before the birth, the female begins to collect material, such as brushwood, grass, and leaves, to use for the nest. The nest is normally located in a hollow tree or a rock crevice. After a gestation period of 112 to 158 days, the female gives birth (mid-June to late July) to between one and four blind cubs weighing each.

After the birth, the mother cleans the cubs and can then recognize each by its smell. At first, she spends 60% to 90% of her time with the cubs. After the first week, the mother starts spending more time outside the nest, returning every few hours to nurse and groom the cubs. She moves the young frequently among several nests, all of which she keeps clean. The cubs start to open their eyes when they are about 18 days old. By about 90 days they have achieved full adult fur and coloring, and begin to venture out of the nest. They also start eating solid foods at this point, weaning at around 6–8 months of age. The cubs stay with their mother until the next litter is born the following summer.

The males rarely help raise the young, and only if they live in pairs or in small groups. The Red Panda is able to reproduce from around 18 months of age, and is fully mature at 2–3 years. The average lifespan is 8–10 years, but individuals have been known to reach 15 years.

Threats

The primary threats to Red Pandas are direct harvest from the wild (live or dead), competition from 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.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. 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 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. For example, less than 40 animals in 4 separate groups share resources of a preserve in Nepal with humans (only 6% of its 1710 km² 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.

In southwest Chinamarker, 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, and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The "good-luck charm" Red Panda-tail hats are also used by Chinese newlyweds.

Until recently, Red Pandas were captured and sold to zoos. Glatston reports that "in International Zoo News, Munro (1969) reported he personally had handled 350 Red Pandas in seventeen years."Thanks to CITES this number 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.

The Red Panda has a naturally low birth rate (usually single or twin births per year), and a high death rate in the wild.

Conservation

The Red Panda has been confused with other animals
The Red Panda is classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List (2009.01), and is included in CITES Appendix I.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, and was accompanied by a photograph of a “Red Panda” as proof. The photograph in question depicted a species of civet.

The population was estimated at less than 2,500 individuals in 1999,and between 16,000 and 20,000 in 2001. The IUCN Red List (2009.01) estimates the total population in China to be between 6,000 and 7,000 and the population in India to be between 5000 and 6000 in the wild, with wild populations still declining. However, these numbers are from surveys done in 2001 and earlier. Estimates for Nepal indicate only a few hundred individuals. There are no records from Bhutan or Myanmar.

The Red Panda is protected in all countries where it lives, and hunting it is illegal.Beyond this, conservation efforts are highly variable between countries:
  • Nepalmarker has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Asia. This country has several protected areas (Langtang National Parkmarker, the Dhorpan Game Reserve, Sagarmatha National Parkmarker, Makulu National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, and the Rara National Park). However, some of these areas suffer from human pressure.
  • Bhutanmarker is probably one of the most unspoilt countries in Asia. It still retains large areas of forest. As of 2009, there are nine protected areas (Jigme Dorji National Park, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Royal Manas National Park, Thrumshingla National Park, Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary), but no records of Red Pandas are kept.
  • Indiamarker (Sikkimmarker, Arunachal Pradeshmarker and West Bengalmarker) has three protected areas with Red Pandas (Khangchendzonga National Parkmarker, Namdapha National Parkmarker and Singalila National Parkmarker), and a coordinated conservation policy for the Red Panda.
  • Myanmarmarker has a high rate of deforestation and no protected areas.
  • Chinamarker has several protected areas with Red Pandas (Wolong National Park, the Tangjiahe Reserve, and the Medogo Wanglang Reserve and National Park).


Captivity

The Red Panda is quite adaptable to living in captivity, and is common in zoos worldwide. By 1992 there had been more than 300 births in captivity, and there were more than 300 individuals living in 85 institutions worldwide.By 2001 there were 182 individuals in North America alone,and by 2006, 173 institutions around the world hosted 511 individuals of subspecies fulgens, and 81 institutions hosted 306 individuals of subspecies refulgens (=styani).

There are captive breeding programs in North America (Species Survival Plan) (SSP) and Europe (European Endangered Species Programme) (EEP), as well as in Australia, Indiamarker, Japanmarker and Chinamarker. All are coordinated through the International Studbook (currently managed at the Rotterdam Zoomarker in the Netherlandsmarker), and the International Red Panda Management Group.In 2009, Sarah Glass, Curator of Red Pandas and Special Exhibits at the Knoxville Zoomarker in Knoxville, Tennesseemarker, was named the coordinator for the North American Red Panda SSP. The Knoxville Zoo has the largest number of captive Red Panda births in the Western Hemisphere (93 as of September 2009). Only the Rotterdam Zoomarker in the Netherlandsmarker has had more captive births worldwide.

Recent successes in Red Panda captive breeding include:



Footnotes

  1. Krämer, Karl-Heinz.
  2. Abstract retrieved 2009-10-08
  3. Glatston 2007b
  4. Abstract retrieved on 2009-09-26
  5. Glatston 1994:20
  6. Abstract retrieved on 2009-10-25
  7. Abstract retrieved 2009-09-26
  8. Glatston 1994:11
  9. CITES Appendix I, II, and III
  10. Glatston 1994:viii
  11. Abstract retrieved on 2009-11-03
  12. Glatston 2007a
  13. Glatston 2007b
  14. Triplets at the Red River Zoo
  15. Rare panda newest resident at Edmonton zoo
  16. India Studbook 2009


References

  • Mace, G.M. and Balmford, A. (2000). “Patterns and processes in contemporary mammalian extinction.” In Priorities for the Conservation of Mammalian Diversity. Has the Panda had its day?, A. Entwhistle and N. Dunstone (eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 27-52.
  • Abstract retrieved on 2009-10-09


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