Red Panda Classification and Evolution
The Red Panda is a cat-sized species of carnivorous mammal that is found inhabiting the temperate mountain forests on the slopes of the Himalayas. As their name suggests, they are related to the larger and more famous Giant Panda (although the exact closeness of their connection still remains uncertain to science), along with also sharing a number of characteristics with the Raccoon and so Red Pandas are classified in a family of their own. The Red Panda is also known by a number of different names in their native regions including the Lesser Panda, the Red Cat-Bear and as the Fire Fox in Nepal. Like their much larger cousin, the Red Panda relies on bamboo to feed and with rapid deforestation of these unique areas there is less and less for these animals to eat, which has ultimately led to the Red Panda being listed as being an endangered species.
Red Panda Anatomy and Appearance
The Red Panda is about the same size as a large housecat, with a cat-like face and a long, bushy tail. Their rusty coloured thick fur covers their body with the exception of their almost white coloured ears, cheeks, muzzle and spots above their eyes. The Red Panda also has reddish brown stripes that run down either side of their white muzzle, along with alternating light and dark rings on their tails. The Red Panda also has semi-retractable claws to aid climbing and stability amongst the branches and strong, tough jaws which they use to chew on bamboo. Like the Giant Panda, the Red Panda also has an extended wrist bone which acts a bit like a thumb, allowing them to hold onto bamboo whilst they are chewing it. The Red Panda also has dense fur which helps to keep it warm during the cold winter along with having thick and woolly fur on the soles of their feet which not only helps to keep their feet warm but also prevents them from slipping on the wet branches.
Red Panda Distribution and Habitat
The Red Panda is found inhabiting the temperate forests in the Himalayas at altitudes of between 1,800 and 4,000 meters. These high mountain slopes tend to be covered in deciduous hardwood forest with a bamboo under-storey that is crucial to the Red Panda's survival. Their historical range extended through Bhutan, Nepal, India, Myanmar and China where their range overlaps that of the even rarer Giant Panda, but today the Red Panda is extinct from certain areas and population numbers are rapidly declining in others. Due to the fragile ecology of their native, mountain forests and their reliance on eating bamboo, the Red Panda is being pushed into smaller and more isolated pockets of their once wide range with other factors including climate change affecting the lack of abundance of bamboo.
Red Panda Behaviour and Lifestyle
The Red Panda is a nocturnal and generally solitary animal with the exception of males and females coming together to mate during the breeding season. Red Pandas spend the daylight hours sleeping in the branches high in the tree canopy with their long, bushy tail wrapped around them to keep them warm. Although they are known to feed in the trees, they usually come down to the ground after dusk to begin foraging in the safety of the darkness. The Red Panda is a territorial animal that marks it's patch with droppings, urine and releasing a musky secretion from it's anal glands. They are also known to communicate between one another using short whistles and squeaks. The Red Panda is a strong and agile climber that not only sleeps safely in the branches during the day but also can dart up a trunk if threatened by predators aided by it's sharp claws.
Red Panda Reproduction and Life Cycles
Red Pandas usually breed between January and March and after a gestation period that lasts for around four months, the female gives birth to 1 - 5 cubs that are born blind and although they begin to open their eyes within a couple of weeks, the eyes of the Red Panda cubs don't fully open until they are about a month old. Before her cubs are born, the female Red Panda builds a nest in a tree-hole, roots or bamboo thicket which is lined with leaves, moss and other soft plant material. Red Panda cubs may not leave the nest until they are three months old and are strong enough to negotiate the tricky branches. They feed solely on bamboo until they are old enough to stomach other foods and reach their full adult size after about a year. There is however a high mortality rate in young Red Pandas with up to 80% not reaching full adulthood.
Red Panda Diet and Prey
Although the Red Panda belongs to the carnivorous group of mammals, their diet is almost vegetarian as bamboo shoots comprise the majority of their food. However, as the Red Panda is a mammal it has a short digestive system meaning that although bamboo holds little nutrition anyway, they are unable to get the most of their meals. Unlike the Giant Panda though, the Red Panda will also eat a variety of other foods to supplement it's diet like acorns, berries and grasses, along with grubs, mice, lizards, chicks and birds' eggs. Along with it's excellent sight, smell and hearing the Red Panda also has long, white whiskers on it's snout which help it to navigate through the dense vegetation in the darkness of night, when it is most actively foraging for food.
Red Panda Predators and Threats
Due to the fact that Red Pandas inhabit high-altitude mountain forests, they actually have fewer natural predators than they would have living further down the slopes. Snow Leopards and Martens are the only real predators of the Red Panda along with Birds of Prey and small carnivores that prey on the smaller and more vulnerable cubs. The biggest threat to the Red Panda however is people who have affected this species mainly through deforestation of their incredibly unique habitats. Due to Human encroachment, illegal hunting and poaching there have been drastic declines in the Red Panda population numbers with these populations also being pushed into more separate, isolated areas. One of the main concerns with this is that these populations will although be threatened by inbreeding leading to less successful individuals in these areas.
Red Panda Interesting Facts and Features
Living high in the cold mountain climates means that Red Pandas are well adapted to keeping warm with their dense fur and blanket-like tail. However, on really cold days Red Pandas have been known to sunbathe high in the canopy to warm themselves up whilst sleeping during the day. A study conducted in 2001 found that 79% of the Red Pandas reported where found within 100 meters of the nearest body of water, indicating that a good water source may also to be crucial to their already strict habitat requirements. Evidence also suggests that Red Panda reproduction rates have been declining which is believed to be related to the decline in the foods that they eat in order to survive and reproduce successfully.
Red Panda Relationship with Humans
Red Pandas have been admired by people for years but many of the experiences that we have with them are in zoos and animal institutions as these rare and secretive animals can be incredibly hard to spot in the wild. This is however one of the factors in their demise as one Indian village reported that 47 Red Pandas were captured and sold to zoos around the world in just one year. Human interference of their unique and specialised habitats though is believed to be the biggest reason for the decline in Red Panda numbers throughout the Himalayas with deforestation mainly in the form of logging being one of the primary culprits. As with the Giant Panda, the Red Panda relies heavily on high-altitude bamboo thickets to survive and without them it has no-where else to go.
Red Panda Conservation Status and Life Today
Today, the Red Panda is listed on the IUCN Red List as being an animal species that is Endangered in it's natural environment and is therefore severely threatened by extinction in the near future. There are estimated to be less than 3,000 Red Pandas remaining in the wild with the majority of these inhabiting small protected zones within national parks. A number of captive breeding programs have also been established in Asia, Europe and North America and appear to be having relative success in their work.