Melissa Williams explores the secretive life of the red panda
Have you ever wondered where the name of the Web browser ‘Firefox’ comes from? Or what animal the Kung Fu Panda character Shifu (aka Dustin Hoffman) was based upon? Look no further, because this edition of Cool Creatures will focus on the culprit – the red panda.
At about the size of a domestic cat, Ailurus fulgens is dwarfed by its black and white namesake. Its russet body, black limbs and underbelly, and white facial markings have caused some to describe it as some kind of Asian fox.
Interestingly, it is not grouped with other pandas or even with bears. Although debated, it is currently believed that they are most closely related to the weasel and racoon families, having branched off on their own about 40 million years ago. The red panda is now the only remaining species in the family Ailuridae.
Once occupying much of Asia, Europe and even North America, their range has declined dramatically. Now A. fulgens can only be found in the temperate forests at the foothills of the Himalayas, sharing some habitat with the other panda species. Its long fur and bushy tail allow it to keep warm in these cold temperatures, while hair growing on its paws allows it to grip branches better.
Due to their feeding habits, red pandas have a very low metabolism so they spend most of their time sleeping in trees, where they curl their ringtail around their body to act as a buffer from the cold.
Like giant pandas, A. fulgens mainly eats bamboo to fulfil its dietary requirements. However, unlike its counterpart, it also feeds on mixed berries and insects. It also shares an extension of the wrist bone that acts as a thumb, allowing greater dexterity in selecting the youngest, most preferable shoots. Bamboo is a very inefficient nutrient food source, so when awake the red panda dedicates its day searching for and consuming the plant.
A. fulgens was the first species to be identified with the word ‘panda’ – 50 years before its namesake. The word originated from the Nepali ‘ponya’ which roughly translates as ‘bamboo or plant eating animal’.
Red pandas are solitary, quiet individuals, and only group together during the mating season. To communicate they use a distinctive twittering bird-like call during. Once born, the mothers look after their young for one year, after which time the cubs become independent. Their secretive lifestyle is the main reason why researchers still know little about their behaviour, but it is clear that human expansion and exploitation has greatly affected their numbers.
One of Earth’s most beautiful animals, its distinctive fur has made the red panda a target for poaching. This, coupled with habitat loss and fragmentation, has led to its classification as vulnerable by the WWF, with current estimates indicating that less than 10,000 adults remain in the wild.
Although still ten times more abundant than the giant panda, the similarities in threats and in population patterns make the survival of the red panda equally as concerning.
So next time you see mention of a giant panda, give a thought to their enchanting namesake. Perhaps this should be the Mini-Me equivalent of the WWF logo.
Featured image credit: Brunswyk/Wikipedia