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The Red Panda

Stock.Xchng photo by "Torli"

In the shadow of its more popular namesake.

When you hear the word ‘panda’, you’d probably think of the cuddly black and white bear of China, the Giant Panda. But did you know the original pandas are the smaller, Red Pandas?

The Red Panda is a raccoon-like animal native to China’s southwest border with the Himalayas—which also borders Nepal, India, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma). Living in the ‘Roof of the World’, Red Pandas require colder temperatures to be comfortable (between 17 and 25°C).

Flickr photo by Kenneth Barrett

Flickr photo by "afagen"
You’ve probably seen pictures and videos of Red Pandas recently in the Internet—resembling plump reddish brown raccoons but are playful like Giant Panda cubs. The Red Panda has been popularized in recent years by the Mozilla Firefox browser (although the Firefox logo is a red fox, not a red panda), and by the Kung Fu Panda movies as Master Shifu, the Kung Fu teacher of Po, Jack Black’s giant panda character.
Even though the Red Panda and the Giant Panda are not close relatives, they surprisingly share some characteristics.
  • Both live in similar cold places (although their territories don’t overlap—the Giant Panda lives in the mountains of Central China).
  • Both eat mostly bamboo (although both will supplement their diet—with other leaves, fruits, berries, birds’ eggs—even meat—whenever available).
  • Both have false ‘thumbs’ (actually an overgrown wrist bone)—for the Red Panda, to aid in climbing trees; for the Giant Panda, as an aid in grasping bamboos.
  • Both are recognized as “living fossils.”
These shared characteristics are probably the reason why the two pandas were seen as relatives at first, the Red Panda being discovered 48 years earlier than the Giant Panda. Nowadays, modern molecular genetic and classification techniques have identified the Red Panda as the sole representative of its own family group, the Ailuridae—it’s scientific name, Ailurus fulgens—“shining cat.” Meanwhile, the Giant Panda is now rightly recognized as a true bear (family Ursidae), but still shares a similar looking genus in its scientific name: Ailuropoda melanoleuca “black-and-white cat-foot.”

Flickr photo by Frank Peters

Flickr photo by "ksbuehler"

Flickr photo by "Light Knight"

Unlike the Giant Panda, (which is very difficult to breed inside zoos), the Red Panda readily breeds in captivity.

While the Red Panda can be domesticated as a pet (there doesn’t seem to be any concerted efforts to do just this as of the moment), providing it with both bamboo and the cold temperatures it needs would not be easy for ordinary homes in the US and Europe—plus getting one into these countries would be difficult because of the Red Panda’s endangered status. But, for its survival, domestication might be the most viable option.

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