- Common Name:
- Red panda
- Scientific Name:
- Ailurus fulgens
- Average Life Span In The Wild:
- 8 to 10 years
- 22 to 25 inches, plus tail of 15 to 19 inches
- Eight to 17 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Current Population Trend:
About red pandas
Red pandas have shot to viral fame for their adorable looks, but there’s a lot more to these elusive animals than their kitten-like faces and striking reddish-brown coats.
Red pandas, which grow to about the size of a house cat, are impressive acrobats that climb and swing on trees in their Asian forest homes, and they once sparked fierce debate about their relationship to giant pandas. Taxonomists previously assigned them to both the raccoon family and the bear family, but DNA research later revealed that they belong to their own unique family (Ailuridae) and genus (Ailurus).
While originally thought to be two subspecies—the Himalayan red panda and the Chinese red panda—growing evidence suggests they may be two distinct species instead. The Chinese red panda is a bit larger and has more distinct rings on its fluffy tail.
Range and habitat
Red pandas live in the rainy mountain forests of Nepal, India, Bhutan, northern Myanmar (Burma), and central China. They spend the vast majority of their lives in trees, where they sleep and sunbathe.
These animals have adapted incredibly well to their environment: They have sharp, semi-retractable claws that help them grip slippery branches, and their flexible ankles give them the unique ability to climb down trees headfirst. This helps them quickly escape predators like snow leopards and jackals, which may have difficulty seeing the animals to begin with: Their coats match the moss clumps that grow on their tree homes, and their black bellies make it difficult for predators to spot them from the ground.
Red pandas even have two layers of fur—a soft undercoat covered with coarse hairs—to insulate them from the mountain chill, and they use their long tail as a wraparound blanket.
Red pandas belong to the order Carnivora, but this has more to do with their biological classification than their actual diet. In reality they rarely eat meat, instead using their powerful molars to grind through up to four pounds of bamboo a day. They also sometimes eat fruit, acorns, roots, eggs, rodents, and birds.
Like giant pandas, red pandas have an extended wrist bone that functions almost like a thumb and helps them grip bamboo shoots. The solitary creatures forage at night and in the gloaming hours of dusk and dawn.
In general red pandas live on their own, but when they do interact with other red pandas, they communicate by arching their tails, bobbing their heads, squealing, or making a sound that scientists call a “huff-quack”—a mix between a duck quack and a pig snort. Pandas who feel threatened may let out a barking sound or release a pungent liquid from glands at the base of their tail.
This smelly liquid also serves another purpose: Males release it to mark their territory when searching for a mate in winter and early spring. They don’t have a big window: females are only fertile for a couple of days a year. They typically give birth to one to four cubs that remain with them for about 90 days. Males take little or no interest in the cubs, leaving the cub-rearing to the mothers.
Threats and conservation
Red pandas are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the organization that determines the conservation status of plant and animal species. While no one knows the exact number of animals in the wild, a 2015 estimate put the population at 10,000, a 50 percent drop since 1997.
These animals are threatened by people clearing their forest habitat for logging and agriculture, as well as by diseases that can spread from domesticated animals. Hunters also kill red pandas for their fur or inadvertently when the creatures stumble into traps meant for other animals. In rare instances red pandas have been snatched from the wild, likely for the illegal pet trade.
DID YOU KNOW?
—Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Red pandas can poop the equivalent of their body weight in one week.
Speaking of poop, during mating season male red pandas will leave out piles of it to alert females to their presence.
The Chinese word for red panda is hun-ho, meaning “fire fox.”
—San Diego Zoo
To conserve energy when temperatures drop, red pandas can put themselves in a “torpor,” which is a deep sleep that slows their metabolic rate.
—Red Panda Network
A French zoologist first described the red panda in 1825—48 years before giant pandas were cataloged.
—San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance