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Published on Jul 9, 2013 in Asia, China, News

The Chinese Red Panda

When we think of panda’s, we usually conjure up the image of what we’ve seen so many times: a cuddly black and white round-faced member of the bear family. But few people know that what we refer to today as a panda actually has a distant cousin, the red panda, whose ancestry can be traced back tens of millions of years.

The red panda, also called lesser panda, looks nothing like its cousin. In fact, it looks more like a reddish raccoon, rather than the panda we envision, as it’s slightly larger than a household cat, weighs about 13-14 pounds, and has a bear-like body covered in thick russet fur. Red pandas are primarily tree dwellers who have a black belly and limbs, and white markings on the side of its head and above its eyes. It also has a long bushy tail that it uses for balance and to help keep itself warm in the winter, placing it over its face.

Red panda’s were first described in 1825 and referred to simply as a panda 44 years before its better-known cousin was even known to the West. The reason that it’s called a panda is that name “panda” actually comes from the Nepali word ponya, which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Therefore, when the red panda was observed to be eating bamboo as its main diet, the people of the region gave this strange looking animal the name of panda. Later, when the giant panda was observed to have the same diet, it too was called a panda.

images-1The biological categorization of the red panda has been a source of controversy since it was first described due to the fact that it has similarities to both the bear family as well as to raccoons, or procyonids. In trying to alleviate this problem biologists placed the red panda in a separate family of its own, the ailurinae. Even though both pandas don’t look the same, they do, however, have at least one anatomical similarity: they both possess a modified wrist bone that acts as a sixth digit or thumb.

Red pandas are solitary by nature, are nocturnal, and are only active an average of 56% of the day as a result of having an extremely slow metabolism. They’re found in southern China, Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and the Eastern Himalayas, which comprises 50% of the red panda’s habitat. The red panda is usually found in these regions as its very heat sensitive, with its optimal “well-being” temperature between 63 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although bamboo is the red panda’s primary food source, they also eat berries, blossoms, bird eggs, flowers, maple and mulberry leaves, and the bark and fruits of maple, beech, and mulberry. Since this diet is low carb, red pandas basically spend their lives eating and sleeping.

The reason that the red panda, like its cousin the giant panda, eat bamboo is that both digestive systems cannot absorb the cellulose that’s found in many foods. Subsequently, the bamboo shoots and leaves meet their dietary needs. In addition, the bamboo shoots are more digestible than the leaves. The time of year in which bamboo is consumed also plays a role in their diet since bamboo shoots are more digestible in the summer and autumn, intermediately digestible in the spring, and have the lowest digestibility in the winter. In fact, it takes a lot of bamboo to satisfy a red panda’s appetite, even with its low metabolism. Red pandas, even though they only weigh an average of 13-14 lbs., eat about 3.3 lbs. of fresh leaves and 8.8 lbs. of fresh shoots daily.

There’s an estimated 10,000 red pandas living in the wild, and they live an average of 8 to 10 years. But the species has been on the decline due to a decrease in the living space from a growing human population invading their habitat. The red panda has been classified as vulnerable to extinction.

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