The Red Panda

The Red Panda, or “firefox,” is often referred to as the “lesser panda” in deference to the better-known giant panda. Others prefer “first panda” as western scientists described it 50 years earlier, and gave pandas their name.

Ailurus fulgens refulgen. Photo by Zooborns​ at Red River Zoo.

The Two Sub-species of the Red Panda

The red panda has been previously classified in the families Procyonidae (raccoons) and Ursidae (bears), but recent research has placed it in its own family Ailuridae, in superfamily Musteloidea along with Mustelidae and Procyonidae.

Two subspecies are recognized:

Ailurus fulgens fulgens
found in Nepal, northeastern India (West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), Bhutan, and part of China.

Ailurus fulgens styani
(also known as a. f. refulgens): Only found in China (in the Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan and the East Nujiang River of Yunnan Province) and northern Myanmar.

The head and body length of red pandas averages 56 to 63 cm (22 to 25 in), and their tails about 37 to 47 cm (15 to 19 in).

Behavior

Red pandas are generally solitary, but there are a couple of exceptions to the rule. First, young red pandas grow relatively slowly, so they develop extended associations with their mothers that last for over a year. Second, red pandas have short relationships during the annual breeding season.

In terms of their ranging patterns, red pandas behave much like larger carnivores. They tend to have overlapping home ranges in which the individuals rarely interact with each other. This may seem odd since red pandas mostly eat bamboo. However, red pandas search for the most tender bamboo shoots and leaves, and these prime specimens may be patchily distributed — not unlike the prey of larger animals such as tigers or leopards. This behavior helps to reduce overcrowding and overuse of shared resources.

The home ranges of female red pandas often measure about one square mile, while males can live in areas twice that size. Male home ranges frequently overlap with at least one female home range and sometimes expand during the breeding season. Because red pandas constantly need to conserve energy, they only cover 650 to 1,000 feet of their home ranges per day and about 25% of their home ranges per month.

Red pandas have several ways of marking their territories and home ranges. These include urine, secretions from anal glands, and scents from glands on the pads of their feet. They have also been known to use communal latrine sites to stake out territory and share information with others. In addition, red pandas often communicate using body language (such as head bobbing and tail arching) and a variety of noises (such as a threatening “huff-quack” and a warning whistle).

Food

The red panda’s diet is very unusual for a mammal and consists mostly of bamboo. When the weather is warm enough, they also eat insects and fruit. Although the giant panda eats almost every part of the bamboo plant (except the roots), the red panda only eats the youngest, most tender shoots and leaves. In addition, the red panda chews the bamboo thoroughly, whereas the giant panda hardly chews at all. The red panda’s preference for bamboo is apparently an ancient adaptation, as indicated by fossils of similar animals that have been found in Eastern Europe and North America. These specimens date back to the Miocene (25 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 2 million years ago) periods, leading scientists to believe that bamboo and red panda-like animals have historically been found in many areas of the planet. It is likely that the range of the bamboo has increased and decreased with changes in global temperature and moisture, and fortunately for the red panda, bamboo still thrives in many parts of Southern Asia.

The red panda’s dietary specialization has a profound impact on the animal’s daily life. For one thing, bamboo is very high in indigestible fiber, making it extraordinarily difficult for red pandas to extract the nutrients that they need. Cows, horses, and other herbivorous mammals normally have very strong teeth and extra fermentation chambers in their guts. However, while red pandas have large teeth, their guts are not specialized to handle plant matter. In fact, red pandas only extract about one-quarter of the nutrients from bamboo, and food passes through their digestive tract quite quickly. That means that many red pandas lose as much as 15 percent of their body weight during the winter when their other preferred foods (such as insects) are not readily available.

To cope with the lack of food during the winter months, red pandas have evolved several ways of meeting their energy demands. For instance, red pandas can spend as much as 13 hours a day looking for and eating bamboo. They also have a very low metabolic rate (almost as low as sloths) and can slow their metabolism even further in colder temperatures. Finally, their thick fur covers their entire body, including the soles of their feet, allowing them to conserve their body heat.

Photo from La Passerelle Conservation.
Photo from Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Life Cycle

Red pandas have a long gestation period (roughly 135 days) for an animal that weighs only 11 pounds at maturity. They also have small litters, producing about two cubs on average.

Despite the amount of food that red pandas eat, they grow quite slowly, reaching adult size after 12 months.

The young become sexually mature at 18 months.

As a result of these characteristics, red pandas have a slow rate of reproduction and have a great deal of difficulty recovering from population declines.

Population, Habitat and Range

The exact size of Asia’s red panda population is currently unknown, but current data estimates global numbers between 2,500 and 10,000.

Red pandas have a large range that extends from western Nepal to northern Myanmar. The species also lives throughout mountainous areas of southwestern China (Yunnan, Sichuan and Xizang provinces) at elevations between 4,900 and 13,000 feet.

Red pandas only live in temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. The temperature in this region is generally cool, and there is little annual variation. The southern slopes of the mountains trap the water from seasonal monsoons, supporting forests of firs, deciduous hardwoods, and rhododendrons. A bamboo understory grows in these forests and provides the bulk of the red panda’s diet. However, these swaths of bamboo are only found in narrow bands throughout the red panda’s range. Thus, although red pandas are distributed across thousands of miles of territory, they are restricted to these small, fragile areas because of their dependence on the bamboo plants.

Source: Red Panda: The Fire Cat by Miles Roberts (ZooGoer 21(2), 1992).