On the Origin of a Species: The Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens

“Oh, hello!” A red panda giving a wave! Look at this adorable little teddy-bear looking bastard! Everybody needs to know what this is and to love them unconditionally. Whilst many may look the same (darker underside, red top with white around the ears and face) their colours can vary and the facial marking in particular can be unique among individuals. (Credit: Mathias Appel CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In my articles on animals I have often written about my love-hate relationship with taxonomy and phylogeny – that is the classification and placements of various species, in relation to one another, on the tree of life.

I love it because it reveals fantastic relationships, things like the knowledge that whales evolved from the Artiodactyls – the even-toed ungulates, so they’re basically sea-dwelling relations of cows, sheep and pigs. It’s remarkable to consider.

On the other hand it can also be a nightmare, particularly prior to the advent of faster processes of genetic analysis. Being able to analyse the genetic code of an animal makes phylogeny a lot quicker, easier and – whilst still not certain – less arguable.

A Cladogram – a phylogenetic diagram organising species into ‘clades’ or groups related by a specific common ancestor. You can see from this that cetaceans, whales and dolphins, are related to the Artiodactyls, the even-toed ungulates like cows, sheep, camels etc. Their closest living land relatives are believed to be hippos. (Credit: C. Buell and L. Betti-Nash, CC-BY-2.5)

Prior to that, though, instead of getting busy doing important work like conserving the Earth’s biodiversity or learning about zoonotic diseases to prevent major pandemics there were scientists who would instead write petty back-and-forths arguing that X-species belong in Y-group, whilst another would argue it was Y-species and belonged in X-group.

That’s, honestly, where my frustration with taxonomy and phylogeny comes from because the answer is always going to change until you gather more evidence. Writing letters to ‘Nature’ magazine arguing with some paper that put X in Y group is solving nothing! Do the fucking work! Then write your own paper, present your findings. There’s an aspect of it that always seemed…arbitrary.

Notice the unique face whiteness? These markings, as mentioned, can tell individuals apart. It is hard to know, I’m not Dr. Doolittle, but with the right enclosure and enough branches and trees red pandas seem quite content in captivity. They can be curious, so require enrichment activities, but they are also docile and sometimes outright lethargic! It’s probably one of the reasons I love them! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

And it’s because it is, to some extent. Life and the evolution of species is a continuum. I know it is hard to think that, but you share common ancestry with every living creature on this planet. It is not a question of are you related, the answer is yes – to a slug, a banana, a slime mould and, sadly, Susan from the down the road who has that annoying yapping dog that won’t shut up no matter how much she shouts at it.

The question is not ‘if’ you are related, but at what point in time your families diverged. When did the human ancestor with the slime mould marry off, and one side of the family went to be other slime moulds and one side decided it wanted to evolve into something different, eventually becoming humans?

For as much as I may think it arbitrary or dislike it there are species that fully justify taxonomy as a discipline of its own and the red panda, sometimes known as the lesser panda, is one such species.

What is it? Some kind of cat-raccoon? A bear-dog? A skunk-weasel!? From this image it is quite easy to see why this raccoon-like, tiny-bear-ish, vegetarian carnivore could cause taxonomic confusion. (Credit: ifinnsson via Pixabay)

This adorable little bastard has been phylogenetically pushed from pillar-to-post. We’ll talk about that later but for now let’s describe what a red panda is.

I’m covering the red panda not just as an apologia, a devil’s advocate against my own negativity towards taxonomy, but because I’ve been to enough zoos and heard enough people misidentifying them that I feel they don’t get the respect they deserve.

Red pandas are in the order Carnivora, they’re a carnivore. They are also in the superfamily (a taxonomic layer between an order and a family) Musteloidae, along with skunks, weasels and raccoons.

Within that group, however, they are in a family of their own – the Ailuridae. Once considered a single species with two sub-species, genetic evidence suggests they may be two separate species. For now, however they are still classified as sub-species Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the Himalayan red panda; and Ailurus fulgens styani the Chinese red panda. Whether that will change is a current taxonomic debate!

What does it look like? Check the photos. It’s an adorable little reddish-orange thing with white markings that loves chilling in trees. They’re quite small, about 50-60cm in body length with a sizeable tail from 30-60cm in length and weighing up to around 6kg – so not too different in size to a large domestic cat.

Like its namesake the giant panda it has a specialised thumb for gripping bamboo, as well as other fruits and vegetation that it eats. Or is it? More on the thumbs later. Yes, it is a vegetarian carnivore – remember a designation of an animal in the order ‘Carnivora’ does not mean it must eat meat, even some meat-eating carnivores like bears or dogs are generalist and will eat vegetation and some, like the red panda here, are almost exclusively vegetarian.

The giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is as confusing as its red namesake. Another vegetarian carnivore, choosing to eat almost exclusively bamboo (as pictured.) It is not a ‘panda’ like the red panda is, likely getting that name from a similar adaptation of the hands. It was also a taxonomic mystery until genetic analysis revealed its place as a basal member of the Ursidae, the bear family. So, even though they’re both called ‘panda’ the red panda and the giant panda are actually only distantly related! (Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard CC-BYNC-ND 2.0)

If you remember my article about squirrels you will know the grey squirrel has a marvellous ability to rotate its ankles allowing it greater dexterity for climbing both up, and down, trees. Well, red pandas have a likewise adaptation. Likely an example of ‘convergent evolution’, where two completely different species adapt the same, or a similar, solution to their environmental problem – in this case efficient climbing of trees.

They’re a beautiful creature, and so distinctive that it actually irks me when people misidentify them. It’s like when I’m at a zoo and somebody sees a leopard and is like “Look at the cheetah!” It makes me angry. I have to taper that anger. I’m an animal fiend and if you count reading books and watching nature documentaries I’ve been studying the natural world since I could fucking read and watch TV. But still, it is clear the casual education about the natural world is fucked up if people don’t know the difference between a leopard and a cheetah. I’ll give you a free pass on leopard and jaguar but cheetahs are too different.

I get the same with red pandas, you stand around by their enclosures at zoos and people are like “It’s some kind of raccoon, a mini-bear or a weird, mutant cat!” And I have to check myself to stop me being outraged that people don’t know this is a red panda. They are a confusing species that not everyone knows.

I’m not sure if this is a wild shot. They can be active during the day but are known to be shy and elusive and thought to be a lot more active at night (nocturnal). They are clearly such elegantly beautiful creatures. Whilst mainly vegetarian (in the wild bamboo makes up around 2/3 of their diet) they have been known to eat small birds, fish and insects. (Credit: Shiv’s fotografia CC-BY-SA 4.0)

I have to remember, taxonomically, phylogenetically, for a long time science didn’t know what the fuck a red panda was, either!

It’s got the name ‘panda’ and was once thought to be related to the giant panda. Partially this is the giant panda’s fault because nobody knew what the fuck they were either, caught somewhere between a bear and a raccoon it wasn’t until genetic studies came along that we discovered they are a member of the bear family, the Ursidae, and are in fact the most basal – the genetically oldest – member of that family.

To further confuse matters it is believed the giant panda got its ‘panda’ name from the Nepali word ‘ponya’, or ‘pauja’ meaning claw or paw, or possibly ‘poonya’ meaning eater of bamboo – terms that the local people used to refer to the red panda that were then applied to the giant panda, which is not a panda, but a bear.

Over the next two images I will give you some adorable information about the resting habits of the red panda. They are very temperature sensitive, optimal temperatures, similar to humans, are between 17 and 25°C. When it is hot, they will rest draped in this sploot configuration, allowing their bodies to radiate out heat. Give me a 30+° day and I often do the same! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

Confused yet? Because you should be! The giant panda is technically named after the red panda, the red panda was once mistakenly grouped with the giant panda which is not a ‘panda’ but actually a bear!

Now, though, we have genetic analysis. After initially being considered a raccoon (in the Procyonidae family) and a bear (in the Ursidae family) and having been considered related to the giant panda in the Ailuropoda genus we now have enough evidence to say that’s all bollocks!

Instead it stands alone. The red panda species (either two species or the two sub-species – status TBD) are the only members of their family, the Ailuridae, and their genus Ailurus. It’s considered a living fossil, having diverged from its nearest relatively tens of millions of years ago, likely back in the paleogene (66 million to about 25 million years ago).

Should the temperature be a little chilly (under 17°C) they are known to rest curled up in a ball, with their thick tails wrapped around them. This is obviously to conserve heat. They live in temperate mountain forests, so variable temperature changes are to be expected and these behavioural adaptations show them to be well suited to the climatic conditions they experience. (Credit: Harlequeen CC-BY-2.0)

For a beautiful critter now endemic to the temperate mountain forests of the Himalayas, across Nepal, Tibet, India, Bhutan and into China (with suggestions of some in Myanmar) evidence of extinct species (such as Parailurus anglicus) have been found as far East as China and as far west as Britain. They were clearly quite disperse at one point in time. It is suggested to have lived in the Pliocene – a time of great climatic change and likely receding forests and cooling events would have led to these species extinctions.

The current population distribution map for the red panda, whose prehistoric relatives may once have spanned the forest of the entire Eurasian continent, or possibly the world given fossil evidence from the Americas. (Credit: IUCN (distribution map source), User:Mysid (initial map), User:rbrausse (clipping), CC-BY-SA 3.0)

What’s more, remember the ‘false thumb’ for gripping bamboo? Well a fossil species discovered in spain – Simocyon batalleri – a relative from the Miocene, between 25 million years ago and around 5 million years ago – suggests this adaptation may have had more to do with moving through trees and branches than gripping bamboo to eat it. Effectively the giant panda evolved the same mechanism separately, by convergent evolution, to eat bamboo!

It’s easy to see how this species is so confusing to a taxonomist!

But that’s good. It gives reason for taxonomic cynics like me to remember why that discipline exists. Sometimes the obvious is not always quite so obvious. Life has funny ways of solving problems in the same or similar ways and confusing the shit out of you. To you it may look like a raccoon, or a small bear, but the truth is, literally, somewhere in between! Without taxonomy we wouldn’t know that.

What’s more it means I have to forgive people for not knowing what it is. For as distinctive as the beautiful red panda is it does look like a fucking raccoon-skunk-bear-cat!

Even more confusing is they are known to stand up on their hind legs from time to time! What is it? Some kind of meerkat-person-raccoon-dog-cat-bear now!? (Credit: DANIEL WONG CC-BY-SA 2.0)

For all of its beauty and importance to science, though, nothing to can stop the encroachment of human exploitation of natural habitats and the inevitable decline in species numbers that follows.

The red panda is endangered, with likely under 10,000 adult individuals and falling, according to IUCN data. Observations are difficult so these populations are only estimates, with some estimates giving numbers between 6,000 and 20,000. Either way it’s too few.

There are now areas of habitat where the red panda is protected but no doubt on top of the very real threat of deforestation they are almost certainly hunted for their meat or, more likely, their fur. Until CITES – The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – an international treaty brought to law in 1975, poaching for zoos was also incredibly common. Nowadays their illegal capture is usually intended to sell them to private collectors as part of illegal pet trade.

Like so many other species that we threaten, we fail to take into account a low birth rate. They have one or two young per year.

BABY TAX! This red panda baby is likely only a couple of weeks old. They tend to have one or two cubs per breeding season, which usually comes once a year. As a result they have a relatively slow birth rate, especially given the rate at which we are losing them to poaching, habitat loss and exploitation. (Credit: jhambright52 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thankfully initiatives are underway to bolster not only the populations of these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats, but to use captive populations to reintroduce individuals to the wild and bolster the genetic diversity to prevent inbreeding problems.

There are panda reserves in Nepal, where income is generated through wildlife and ecological tourism, giving a wonderful opportunity for the pandas to flourish and be appreciated in their native habitat.

As well as this there is a global breeding programme aimed at generating more individuals that can be returned to the wild. It is always a danger releasing a captive bred animal into the wild but a 2003 initiative by a Zoo in Darjeeling pulled it off successfully. Hopefully this paves the way for more future releases.

BLEP! It is hard to deny the cuteness of these amazing creatures. (Credit: © Copyright Christine Matthews CC-BY-SA 2.0)

So here’s hoping there’s a bright future for these beautiful, enigmatic and taxonomically confusing beasts. Because without species like these, I’d just be a grumpy bastard raging against arbitrarily classifying anything. As it is, I’m glad species like the red panda help me see the point, and taper my cynicism.

Want to read about more animals? Read more from our ‘On the Origin…’ Series!
Saltwater Crocodiles – Beautiful, potentially human-hunting, predators.
The Tapiridae – The tapirs, amazing, prehistoric looking animals.
The Common Lizard – Maybe common, but a rare sight as they are shy!

Or check out our Top Ten Animals Series
The Top Ten Sharks – Including the White Shark, Greenland Shark and Whale Shark.
The Top Ten Cats – From the Lion to the domestic Moggy we rank cat species!
The Top Ten Most Hated but Misunderstood Animals – Because they all need love!

We also have a LOT of cats in our Caturday Specials!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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