fulgens (western red panda)
styani (Styan’s red panda)
Body length: 20 to 25 inches (51 to 64 centimeters)
Tail length: 11 to 19 inches (28 to 49 centimeters)
Weight: Males—10 to 14 pounds (4.5 to 6.2 kilograms); females—6 to 10 pounds (3 to 4.5 kilograms)
Life span: 8 to 10 years in the wild, up to 15 years in zoos
Gestation: 98 to 145 days (due to delayed implantation)
Number of young at birth: 1 to 4, usually 2
Weight at birth: 3.85 to 4.55 ounces (110 to 130 grams)
Age of maturity: 18 to 20 months
Conservation status: endangered
In China, Styan’s red pandas Ailurus fulgens styani and giant pandas share the same habitat: bamboo forests. They both have powerful molars for chewing on tough bamboo and are mostly vegetarians—although both animals are classified as carnivores!
Bamboo is not a great food source for energy and is hard to digest. Red pandas need to eat 20 to 30 percent of their body weight each day—about 2 to 4 pounds (1 to 2 kilograms) of bamboo shoots and leaves!
The Chinese name for the red panda is hun-ho, meaning fire fox.
The first known written record of the red panda occurred in a 13th-century Chinese scroll.
Many people are more familiar with giant pandas than red pandas, but the red pandas were introduced to Europeans in 1821 and described to Western science in 1825—more than 40 years before giant pandas were scientifically described in 1869.
Red pandas first came to the San Diego Zoo in 1940 and reproduced in 1941. The red pandas continued to have cubs over the years, and the offspring were used to help build species breeding relationships with other zoos.
Mammals: Red Panda
Western red panda
Living the high life
With their bushy tail for balance—which can be as long as their body—and claws for gripping, red pandas are definitely acrobatic tree dwellers. Most of their time is spent in trees, and females often choose a tree hollow as a birthing den. The red panda's reddish coat and white face mask give great camouflage among the red moss and white lichen that cover the tree trunks of their bamboo forest homes. Trees are also used as a perch for sunbathing high in the forest canopy and give red pandas an escape route from predators such as snow leopards.
French naturalist Baron Cuvier first described the western red panda Ailurus fulgens fulgens to Western science in 1825. After examining a red panda, he said it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen! Baron Cuvier named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, because of the red panda’s catlike features) and fulgens, which means fire-colored or shining. In 1897, F. W. Styan discovered another form of red panda, and it is named after him: Ailurus fulgens styani. The Styans' panda is a bit larger and more brightly colored than the western red panda.
So how did this Asian animal come to be called a panda? We believe that Thomas Hardwicke, who brought the red panda to the notice of Europeans, called the animal “wah” after the sound of its loud call. It seems he also noted a local Nepalese name, nigalya poonya, meaning “eater of bamboo,” which later became “panda.”
The trees where these excellent climbers spend most of their time are covered with reddish brown moss, a perfect camouflage for the red panda's reddish fur.
Don’t call them “lesser” pandas!
Classifying animals is not an easy task, and scientists have argued for years over red pandas and giant pandas: are they related to each other? Red pandas and giant pandas share a common ancestor that lived millions of years ago. Yet because of the giant panda’s larger size, some biologists came to write about red pandas as “lesser” pandas. And what other animals are they related to: raccoons, kinkajous, and coatimundis, or are they more closely linked to bears? General agreement today is that red pandas are linked with raccoons, while giant pandas are linked with bears.
Wake me when it's nighttime
Don't look for any red panda activity during the day: they usually move around at dawn and dusk, sleeping during the hottest part of the day. They also begin their day by licking the front paws and then cleaning the fur all over the body. You might see one stretched out on a tree branch or even rolled up in a tree hollow with its long tail covering the face.
When night falls, the red panda runs quickly through the trees when foraging for food. A male red panda also patrols his territory and scent marks it with urine as well as a secretion from his anal gland.
The Styan's panda is a slow climber and spends an equal amount of time in trees and on the ground.
Don't mess with me
Both western and Styan's red pandas have claws that can be used for climbing. This mild-mannered animal will defend its territory by standing on its hind legs and using those sharp claws to strike out if threatened. If that doesn't work at keeping enemies away, the panda can release a strong odor from scent glands at the base of the tail. Red pandas can also make a variety of calls, including shrill cries, whistles, and a birdlike chirp.
Where's my bamboo?
Red pandas eat mostly bamboo leaves (bamboo stalks are eaten in the spring), fruit in the summer, as well as acorns and flowers. They may also eat eggs, small birds, and small rodents. Eating a specialized diet like bamboo happens to be very unusual among mammals. In fact, only a few animals depend mostly on bamboo for their food: red pandas, giant pandas, bamboo lemurs from Madagascar, and bamboo rats from China and Southeast Asia. Amazingly, red pandas can spend as much as 13 hours a day searching for bamboo!
Red pandas, like giant pandas, have a wrist bone that works like a “false thumb” to help grasp bamboo shoots (or leaf eater biscuits!).
Just like its raccoon relatives, the red panda dips its paws into water when it needs a drink. At the San Diego Zoo, the red pandas are fed leaf eater biscuits, dry dog food, grapes, apples, yams, and, of course, bamboo.
Red pandas happen to be solitary animals, except during the breeding season, which takes place from January through April, or when the mother and her cubs are together, usually for a year after birth. Like the giant panda, the red panda female is fertile for only one or two days a year. The young are born with thick buff and gray fur and with their eyes and ears tightly closed. The red panda mother shelters her young in tree hollows and regularly moves them to new dens, carrying her offspring in her mouth. The babies usually begin opening their eyes and ears at about two to three weeks of age. When hungry, the newborns get their mother's attention with high-pitched whistles.
At three weeks of age, red panda cubs have not fully opened their eyes.
The soles of the newborn's feet are bare, but as an adult its feet will be covered with hair to help the red panda climb on wet, slippery branches and walk on icy rocks or snow-covered ground. As the baby grows, its short, fat tail will become beautifully ringed and will grow to be almost as long as its body. This long tail helps the animal keep its balance in the trees. Young red pandas stay in the den for about three months before venturing out. By five months of age they are almost as large as their mother. They mature in 18 to 20 months and are driven away by their mother at that time so she can get ready to raise her next litter. Males rarely help with raising the young.
Appealing for help
Sadly, we do not have reliable population numbers for red pandas, which are endangered. People clearing forests for farming and grazing, as well as hunting and the pet trade, have drastically reduced the number of red pandas—some estimate that only 2,500 adult red pandas remain in the wild. On the positive side, there are now worldwide efforts in place to save red pandas. Working together, we can save this beautiful and appealing animal.