15 Remarkable Red Panda Facts

Despite certain similarities to giant panda bears, red pandas are part of their own unique scientific family

Red pandas are part of their own distinct scientific family.
aaronchengtp photography / Getty Images

Adorable, fuzzy, and about the size of a house cat, red pandas are endemic to the high forests of the Eastern Himalayas. They’re distinguishable by their thick red fur, short snouts, and pointed ears, but what really sets these mammals apart are their bushy ringed tails and the teardrop shaped markings below their eyes.

Red pandas spend most of their lives in trees, using their semi retractable claws to move between branches and forage for food. Although the exact number of surviving individuals is difficult to establish because of its shy and secretive nature, the IUCN lists the red panda as an endangered species with a declining population. Here are 15 more facts you may not know about these furry red mammals.

1. Red Pandas Have Pseudo-Thumbs

Like giant panda bears, red pandas have a pseudo-thumb, which is basically an extended wrist bone that can function as a thumb but isn’t a true appendage. These “thumbs” help red pandas grip and grasp objects like bamboo and tree branches to feed and move about. According to an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the false thumbs were inherited from a primitive member of the red panda family that also lived in trees but had a more carnivorous diet.

A red panda eating bamboo leaves
Anita Csejtei / EyeEm / Getty Images

2. They Are Not Closely Related to Giant Pandas

Despite sharing a name, red pandas aren’t in the same family as giant pandas. Red pandas were initially described as members of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) due to their similar heads and tails. More recent discoveries have placed red pandas in their own distinct scientific family known as Ailuridae, more closely related to skunks and weasels than to the giant panda bear.

3. Red Pandas Were Recently Separated Into Two Species

While the red panda was originally thought to be one species made up of two subspecies, new genetic studies have found that there are actually two distinct species of red panda: the Himalayan red panda and the Chinese red panda. Researchers in China found that two separate species had formed about 250 thousand years ago when populations were divided by the Yalu Zangbu River. The Himalayan red panda tends to have more white on its face, while the Chinese red panda is larger with darker fur.

4. Their Diet Primarily Consists of Bamboo

Red pandas feed selectively on the leaf tips and shoots of the bamboo plant — they prefer short and robust bamboo shoots over tall ones. Although their digestive system is not very good at processing the cellulose components of the plant cell, bamboo makes up 90% of their diet, while the remaining 10% is mostly comprised of berries, eggs, mushrooms, flowers, birds, and maple and mulberry leaves.

5. They Have the Digestive System of a Carnivore

Red pandas aren’t strict vegetarians; they also forage for insects, grubs, and even birds and small mammals. They have the digestive anatomy of a carnivore that specializes in digesting protein and fats rather than the plant fibers and carbohydrates that make up most of their diets. Red pandas also possess traces of the umami taste receptor gene TAS1R1, which allows them to perceive components of meat and other protein rich foods.

6. Red Pandas Are One of Earth’s Living Fossils

Fossils found at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee suggest that ancient relatives of the living red panda inhabited North America between 5 and 12 million years ago. Known as the Bristol’s panda (Pristinailurus bristoli), the ancient panda was first discovered in 2004, when researchers from East Tennessee State University found skeletal fragments and a single tooth at the famous fossil site. The fossils were found to belong to an undiscovered ancient species and a more complete jawbone specimen was uncovered a few years later.

7. Red Pandas Are Born Covered in Fur

Two red panda cubs
David Gray / Getty Images

Baby red pandas are about as cute as you’d imagine, weighing anywhere from 3 to 4 ounces at birth. Cubs are born completely covered in fur to protect them from their high altitude cold environments. Red panda offspring stay with their mothers until they are fully grown, which takes about a year.

8. They Have a High Mortality Rate in the Wild

Red panda females have low birth rates in the wild and on average only deliver one cub per year. What’s worse, panda mortality rate is high in their wild habitats, where parasites are also a concern. A study of Nepalese red pandas found that they are highly susceptible to deadly endoparasites, with a parasite prevalence of 90.80% in the population studied.

Similar issues are recorded in captive red pandas. Records of institutions holding captive red pandas in Europe between 1992 and 2012 revealed that 40.2% of total panda deaths were among cubs under 30 days of age, with pneumonia listed as the most common cause of death.

9. They Can Digest Cyanide

Red pandas can digest over 40 different species of bamboo. Like giant pandas, red pandas have evolved to neutralize cyanide in their guts as they feed on bamboo, which contains abundant cyanide compounds. The combination of their cyanide-digesting gut microbes with other commonalities like pseudo-thumbs and genomic signature suggests that giant panda and the red panda evolved these common traits and gut micro-biota independently to adapt to their overlapping bamboo diet.

10. Adult Red Pandas Stick to Themselves Outside of Mating Season

Adult red pandas typically live alone, rarely interacting with others outside of the early winter mating seasons. Female pandas give birth in the spring or summer after a gestation period of about 114 to 145 days, when they also work on collecting sticks, grass, and leaves to make nests in hollow trees or rock crevices.

Red pandas have an extremely narrow birth window. In a 2018 study examining reproductive seasonality in carnivorous mammals, 80% of all red panda births took place within 35 days of each other.

11. Red Pandas Are Confined to the Eastern Himalayas

Red pandas live in high forest mountains from northern Myanmar in Burma all the way to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in China, but they are also found in Nepal, India, and Tibet. They can sometimes be found in other high mountains, but the World Wildlife Fund believes that about 50% of their range is confined to the Eastern Himalayas. The loss of nesting trees and bamboo due to deforestation and forest clearing is majorly responsible for the decline in red panda populations across their range.

12. They Live at High Altitudes

A red panda curled up in the snow
Natalia / 500px / Getty Images

Preferring high forested mountain habitats, red pandas have adapted to endure extremely high altitudes. In Bhutan, for example, a survey of red pandas between 2007 and 2009 found that a majority of red pandas were confined to cool broadleaf and conifer forests between 7,800 to 12,000 feet above sea levels on south and east facing slopes. While this was the majority of recorded habitats, some were found living in forests at almost 14,400 feet above sea level.

13. They Are Endangered

The IUCN lists red pandas as endangered and believes that the population has declined by 50% over the past three generations. Unfortunately, this decline is projected to continue due to the poor survival rate of the species in certain regions, habitat loss, and fragmentation. Species of Himalayan bamboos that make up a vast majority of the red panda’s diet are also sensitive to environmental degradation, deforestation, fire, and overgrazing. In addition, reduced canopy cover as land is cleared for agriculture or development increases wind and water stress for both mature bamboo plants and new seedlings.

14. The Demand for Red Panda Pelts Is Increasing

An increase in red panda pelt seizures has suggested more interest in illegal trade, and a 2020 study published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife set out to discover why. Researchers were able to document socio cultural perspectives affecting panda conservation in Nepal by interviewing local people, reviewing media, and consulting experts. Interestingly, the study found that a majority of people living in red panda habitats didn’t show negative perceptions of the species to society or positive perceptions about its economic value, and that they rarely had any medicinal, cultural, or religious significance.

15. Red Panda Conservationists Have High Hopes for Nepal

Currently, 14.23% of the entire country of Nepal represents suitable habitat for the red panda, making the country a perfect setting for potential panda conservation. However, while a limited number of red pandas are found in Nepal’s Langtang National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, Sagarmatha National Park, Manaslu Conservation Area, Makalu Barun National Park, and Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, more than 75% of potential red panda habitat in the country falls outside of protected areas.

Save the Red Panda

  • Support the World Wildlife Fund in its fight to protect red pandas within their natural habitat throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
  • Become an ambassador for the Red Panda Network, a non profit that helps raise awareness for the red panda and empower local communities in red panda habitat countries.
  • Help put a stop to deforestation in the Eastern Himalayan areas suitable for red panda habitat by getting involved in efforts organized by the Rainforest Trust.
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