Red pandas live in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar, and central China.
The temperature in these regions 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.
Bamboo, bamboo, and more bamboo
Red pandas are actually carnivores, and they will occasionally eat eggs, small insects, birds and small mammals. The bulk of their diet is bamboo however. They can only digest around 24% of the bamboo that they eat, and so they have to eat 20-30% of their body weight in bamboo shoots and leaves. In fact, female red pandas have been found to eat around 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day! To find all this bamboo, red pandas have to spend about half of their waking day foraging for it.
Panda, bear, racoon?
The red panda has many other names, including lesser panda, cat-bear, bear-cat, Himalayan raccoon, fox bear, and firefox. The red panda has been thought to be members of various different families since they were discovered in 1825. First, they were thought to be relatives of raccoons, and then they were classed as bears. Scientists have argued for years over whether red pandas are related to the giant panda. Although they share many similarities with giant pandas, such as their love of bamboo, they are not actually related. Recently, advances in DNA studies have led scientists to discover that red pandas have their own unique family, all on their own. Their closest relatives are all now extinct, having lived 3-4 million years ago.
Clever wrists help them to grip
Like giant pandas, red pandas also have a modified wrist bone that acts like a thumb. This enables them to grasp bamboo when feeding, and it helps them to climb slippery trees. Like raccoons, they also dip their paws into water to drink. Red pandas are also one of the few animals who can climb down a tree head-first.
Their beautiful markings have a purpose
The red tear tracks that go from the red panda’s eyes to their mouth are thought to help keep the sun out of their eyes. And their beautiful white markings are almost luminescent, and so they help cubs to find their mother in the dark.
A tail that is also a blanket
Red pandas live in very cold climates, and so their fluffy bodies and fur covered soles help to keep them warm. Their long fluffy tails also help too. When temperatures really drop, red pandas go into a deep sleep called a torpor. They wrap their tail around themselves as a blanket, and sometimes even as a pillow. In this torpor state they reduce their metabolic demands and lower their core temperature and respiration rate to conserve energy.
Red Pandas really are amazing animals
Red Panda conservation:
The red panda is considered endangered, and they are on the IUCN’s Red list of Threatened Species. Worryingly, the population of red pandas has decreased by 50% over the past 18 years, and this decline will likely worsen over the next 18 years.
Estimated numbers of red pandas in the wild vary from 2,500 to 10,000. The red panda is an elusive animal, and so they are difficult to spot.
The red panda is at risk due to a number of human threats. Deforestation is a big threat. Huge areas of forest have been cleared for farming and grazing, and this has led to a drastic decline in habitat and food for these animals. Fortunately, there are now worldwide efforts to protect their habitats, and some areas have been designated as protected areas. There are 20 protected areas in India, 35 in China, 8 in Nepal, and 5 in Bhutan. These will go a long way to help conserve these amazing animals.
Other threats to red pandas include hunting and the pet trade. Red pandas are hunted for their beautiful fur, and sometimes they get entangled in snares intended for other animals. Sadly, these animals are also hunted for the pet trade. These wild animals do not make good pets, and they belong in the wild.
For more details see
Red Panda Network