Red panda

Red panda
A red panda at the Cincinnati Zoo
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Ailuridae
Genus: Ailurus
F. Cuvier, 1825
A. fulgens
Binomial name
Ailurus fulgens
F. Cuvier, 1825

A. f. fulgens (Himalayan red panda) F. Cuvier, 1825
A. f. styani (Chinese red panda) Thomas, 1902[2]

Map showing the range of the red pandas
Range of the red panda

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a carnivoran native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List because the wild population is estimated at fewer than 10,000 mature individuals and continues to decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.[1] Despite its name, it is not closely related to the giant panda.[3]

The red panda has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs; it is roughly the size of a domestic cat, though with a longer body. It is arboreal and feeds mainly on bamboo, but also eats eggs, birds, and insects. It is a solitary animal, mainly active from dusk to dawn, and is largely sedentary during the day. It is also called the lesser panda, the red bear-cat, the red cat-bear,[4] and the fire fox.[5]

The red panda is the only living member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae. It has previously been placed in the raccoon and bear families, but the results of phylogenetic analysis provide strong support for its taxonomic classification in its own family, Ailuridae, which is part of the superfamily Musteloidea, along with the weasel, raccoon and skunk families.[6] Traditionally it was thought to consist of two subspecies.[7] However, results of genetic analysis indicate that there are most likely two distinct red panda species, the Chinese red panda and the Himalayan red panda, which genetically diverged 0.22 million years ago.[8]

Physical characteristics

A red panda skull

The red panda has long, soft, reddish-brown fur on the upper parts, blackish fur on the lower parts, and a light face with tear markings and white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its skull is roundish with medium-sized upright ears, its nose is black, and its eyes are blackish. Its teeth are robust. Its long, bushy tail with six alternating transverse ochre rings provide balance and excellent camouflage in a habitat with moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black and short with thick fur on the soles of the paws. This fur serves as thermal insulation on snow-covered or icy surfaces and conceals scent glands, which are also present on the anus.[9]

The head and body length of a red panda measures 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in), and its tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in) long. Males weigh 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8.2 to 13.7 lb) and females 3 to 6.0 kg (6.6 to 13.2 lb).[10]

The red panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws[10] standing inward for grasping narrow tree branches, leaves, and fruit. Like the giant panda, it has a "false thumb", which is an extension of the wrist bone. When descending a tree head-first, the red panda rotates its ankle to control its descent, one of the few climbing species to do so.[11]

Distribution and habitat

A red panda lies sleeping on a high branch of a tree, with tail stretched out behind and legs dangling on each side of the branch
A red panda sleeping on a tree

The red panda is endemic to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, and ranges from the foothills of western Nepal to China in the east.[12] Its easternmost limit is the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province in China. Its range includes southern Tibet, Sikkim and Assam in India, Bhutan, the northern mountains of Burma, and in south-western China, in the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan and the Gongshan Mountains in Yunnan. It may also live in south-west Tibet and northern Arunachal Pradesh, but this has not been documented. Locations with the highest density of red pandas include an area in the Himalayas that has been proposed as having been a refuge for a variety of endemic species in the Pleistocene. The distribution range of the red panda should be considered disjunct, rather than continuous.[10] A disjunct population inhabits the Meghalaya Plateau of north-eastern India.[13]

The red panda lives between 2,200 and 4,800 m (7,200 and 15,700 ft) altitude, inhabiting areas of moderate temperature between 10 and 25 °C (50 and 77 °F) with little annual change. It prefers mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests, especially with old trees and dense understories of bamboo.[10][12]

During a survey in the 1970s, signs of red pandas were found in Nepal's Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve.[14] Their presence was confirmed in spring 2007 when four red pandas were sighted at elevations ranging from 3,220 to 3,610 m (10,560 to 11,840 ft).[15] Its westernmost distribution is in Rara National Park.[16][17] In 2018, red pandas were sighted at elevations of 3,150–3,650 m (10,330–11,980 ft) in Nepal's Lamjung District.[18]

The red panda population in Sichuan Province is larger and more stable than the Yunnan population, suggesting a southward expansion from Sichuan into Yunnan in the Holocene.[19] The red panda has become extirpated from the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Qinghai.[20]

Behavior and ecology


Sounds of red panda twittering

The red panda is territorial; it is solitary except during mating season. It is generally quiet except for some twittering, tweeting, and whistling communication sounds. It has been reported to be both nocturnal and crepuscular, sleeping on tree branches or in tree hollows during the day and increasing its activity in the late afternoon and early evening hours. It sleeps stretched out on a branch with legs dangling when it is hot, and curled up with its tail over the face when it is cold.[10] It is very heat-sensitive, with an optimal "well-being" temperature between 17 and 25 °C (63 and 77 °F).[21]

A red panda standing on a stone

Shortly after waking, red pandas clean their fur somewhat like a cat would, licking their front paws and then rubbing their backs, torsos, and sides. They also rub their backs and bellies along the sides of trees or rocks. Then they patrol their territories, marking with urine and a weak musk-smelling secretion from their anal glands. They search for food running along the ground or through the trees. Red pandas may use their forepaws alternately to bring food to their mouths or place food directly into their mouths.[10]

Predators of the red panda include the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), mustelids, and humans. If they feel threatened or sense danger, they may try to escape by climbing a rock column or tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use the sharp claws on their front paws to defend themselves[citation needed]. A red panda became a visitor attraction in Japan for his ability to stand upright for ten seconds at a time.[22]


A red panda on a ginkgo tree

Red pandas are excellent climbers, and forage largely in trees. They eat mostly bamboo, and may eat small mammals, birds, eggs, flowers, and berries. In captivity, they were observed to eat birds, flowers, maple and mulberry leaves, and bark and fruits of maple, beech, and mulberry.[10]

Like the giant panda, they cannot digest cellulose, so they must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Their diets consist of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichens, and grasses. Occasionally, they supplement their diets with fish and insects. They do little more than eat and sleep due to their low-calorie diets.[23][24]

Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves, exhibiting the highest digestibility in summer and autumn, intermediate digestibility in the spring, and lowest digestibility in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. Red pandas process bamboo poorly, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies microbial digestion plays only a minor role in their digestive strategy. To survive on this poor-quality diet, they have to eat the high-quality sections of the bamboo plant, such as the tender leaves and shoots, in large quantities, over 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of fresh leaves and 4 kg (8.8 lb) of fresh shoots daily. This food passes through the digestive tract fairly rapidly (about 2–4 hr) so as to maximize daily nutrient intake.[25] Red pandas can taste artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, and are the only nonprimates known to be able to do so.[26]


A red panda tending its cub

Red pandas are able to reproduce at around 18 months of age, and are fully mature at two to three years. Adults rarely interact in the wild except to mate. Both sexes may mate with more than one partner during the mating season from mid-January to early March.[27] A few days before birth, females begin to collect material, such as brushwood, grass, and leaves; to build a nest, which is normally located in a hollow tree or a rock crevice. After a gestation period of 112 to 158 days, the female gives birth in mid-June to late July to one to four (usually 1–2) blind and deaf cubs weighing 110 to 130 g (3.9 to 4.6 oz) each.[10]

After birth, the mother cleans the cubs, and can then recognize each by their smell. At first, she spends 60% to 90% of her time with the cubs. After the first week, the mother starts spending more time outside the nest, returning every few hours to nurse and groom the cubs. She moves the young frequently among several nests, all of which she keeps clean. The cubs start to open their eyes at about 18 days of age. By about 90 days, they achieve full adult fur and coloring, and begin to venture out of the nest. They also start eating solid foods at this point, weaning at around six to eight months of age. The cubs stay with their mother until the next litter is born in the following summer. Males rarely help raise the young, and only if they live in pairs or in small groups.[10]

A red panda's lifespan ranges between eight and 10 years, but individuals have been known to reach 15 years.[28]


The primary threats to red pandas are direct harvest from the wild, live or dead, competition with domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in habitat loss or fragmentation. The relative importance of these factors is different in each region, and is not well understood.[12] For instance, in India, the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China, the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching.[1] A 40% decrease in red panda populations has been reported in China over the last 50 years, and populations in western Himalayan areas are considered to be lower.[20]

Deforestation can inhibit the spread of red pandas and exacerbate the natural population subdivision by topography and ecology, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. Fewer than 40 animals in four separate groups share resources with humans in Nepal's Langtang National Park, where only 6% of 1,710 km2 (660 sq mi) is preferred red panda habitat. Although direct competition for food with domestic livestock is not significant, livestock can depress bamboo growth by trampling.[29]

Small groups of animals with little opportunity for exchange between them face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. In addition, clearcutting for firewood or agriculture, including hillside terracing, removes old trees that provide maternal dens and decreases the ability of some species of bamboo to regenerate.[12]

In south-west China, red pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails, from which hats are produced. In these areas, the fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies. In weddings, the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The "good-luck charm" red panda-tail hats are also used by local newly-weds.[20] This practice may be quite old, as the red panda seems to be depicted in a 13th-century Chinese pen-and-ink scroll showing a hunting scene. Little or no mention of the red panda is made in the culture and folklore of Nepal.[30]

In the past, red pandas were captured and sold to zoos. In an article appearing in the International Zoo News in 1969, one reported he personally had handled 350 red pandas in 17 years.[31]

Due to CITES, this zoo harvest has decreased substantially in recent years, but poaching continues, and red pandas are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices. In some parts of Nepal and India, red pandas are kept as pets.[32]

The red panda has a naturally low birth rate (usually one single or twin birth per year), and a high death rate in the wild[citation needed].


Closeup look of a red panda
A red panda resting on a tree

The red panda is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2008 because the global population is estimated at 10,000 individuals, with a decreasing population trend; only about half of the total area of potential habitat of 142,000 km2 (55,000 sq mi) is actually being used by the species. Due to its shy and secretive nature, and its largely nocturnal habits, observation of red pandas is difficult. Therefore, population figures in the wild are determined by population density estimates and not direct counts. It is protected in all range countries, and hunting is illegal. It is listed in CITES Appendix I.[1]

Worldwide population estimates range from fewer than 2,500[27] to between 16,000 and 20,000 individuals.[13] In 1999, the total population in China was estimated at between 3,000 and 7,000 individuals.[20] In 2001, the wild population in India was estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals.[13] Estimates for Nepal indicate only a few hundred individuals.[33] Reliable population numbers are hard to find, partly because other animals have been mistaken for the red panda. For instance, one report from Myanmar stated that red pandas were still fairly common in some areas; however, the accompanying photographic proof of the "red panda" was in fact a viverrid species.[34]

Conservation efforts are highly variable between countries:

In situ initiatives

A community-managed forest in Ilam District of eastern Nepal is home to 15 red pandas which generate household income through tourism activities, including homestays. Villagers in the high-altitude areas of Arunachal Pradesh have formed the Pangchen Red Panda Conservation Alliance comprising five villages with a community-conserved forest area of 200 km2 (77 sq mi) at an altitude of 2,500 m (8,200 ft) to over 4,000 m (13,000 ft).[36]

In captivity

Red panda at Prospect Park Zoo, New York

The international red panda studbook is currently managed at Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. In cooperation with the International Red Panda Management Group, they coordinate the Species Survival Plan in North America, the European Endangered Species Programme in Europe, and other captive-breeding programs in Australia, India, Japan, and China. As of 2006, more than 800 individuals were kept in zoos and parks around the world. Of these, 511 individuals of the Himalayan red panda were kept in 173 institutions[37] and 306 individuals of Styan's red panda were kept in 81 institutions.[38] Since 2009, the North American Red Panda Species Survival Plan is coordinated at the Knoxville Zoo, which by 2019 had 110 red panda births; the most of any zoo worldwide.[37][38]

The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling successfully released four captive-bred red pandas to the wild in August and November 2003.[39]

The most often cited example of keeping red pandas as pets is the case of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Pandas were presented to her family as a gift, and they were then housed in "a special tree house".[40]


Ailurus fulgens was the scientific name proposed by Frédéric Cuvier in 1825, who described a zoological specimen sent by Alfred Duvaucel "from the mountains north of India". He was the first to also use the vernacular name panda.[41][42] In the 19th and 20th centuries, the following specimens were described:

  • by Thomas Hardwicke in 1827 from the Himalayas who explained: "It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. It is also called Chitwa. Hardwicke's originally proposed taxonomic name was removed from the publication with his permission.[43]
  • Ailurus ochraceus proposed by Brian Houghton Hodgson in 1847 was a red panda from the Himalayas. Reginald Innes Pocock concluded that it represents the same type species as Ailurus fulgens, since the description of the two agree very closely. He subordinated both types to the nominate subspecies A. f. fulgens.[9]
  • Ailurus fulgens styani described by Oldfield Thomas in 1902 was based on one skull from a male specimen collected in Sichuan by F.W. Styan.[2]

Pocock distinguished A. f. styani from A. f. fulgens by its longer winter coat and greater blackness of the pelage, bigger skull, more strongly curved forehead, and more robust teeth. His description is based on skulls and skins collected in Sichuan, Myitkyina District, close to the border of Yunnan, and Upper Burma.[9]

Two subspecies are usually recognised, although results from a recent genomic study has suggested that these should be considered separate species:[1][8]

  • The Himalayan red panda (A. f. fulgens) lives in the western part of the red panda's range, namely in Nepal, Assam, Sikkim, and Bhutan.[12]
  • Styan's red panda (A. f. styani) lives in northern Myanmar and southern China. It is supposedly larger and darker in color than the Himalayan red panda, but there is considerable variation in both subspecies. Some individuals may be brown or yellowish-brown, rather than red.[12]

The Brahmaputra River is often considered the natural barrier between the two subspecies, where it makes a curve around the eastern end of the Himalayas, although some authors suggest A. f. fulgens extends farther eastward into China.[44]

The name Ailurus fulgens refulgens is sometimes incorrectly used for A. f. styani. This stems from a lapsus made by Henri Milne-Edwards in 1874.[45] making A. f. refulgens a nomen nudum.[44] This has been corrected in later publications.[46][47]


Red panda gnawing on an exfoliated bamboo bush

At various times, the red panda was placed in the Procyonidae, Ursidae, with Ailuropoda (giant panda) in the Ailuropodinae (until this family was moved into the Ursidae), and into its own family, the Ailuridae. This uncertainty comes from difficulty in determining whether certain characteristics of Ailurus are phylogenetically conservative or are derived and convergent with species of similar ecological habits.[10]

Evidence based on the fossil record, serology, karyology, behavior, anatomy, and reproduction reflect closer affinities with Procyonidae than Ursidae. However, ecological and foraging specializations and distinct geographical distribution in relation to modern procyonids support classification in the separate family Ailuridae.[7][10][48]

Recent molecular systematic DNA research also places the red panda into its own family, Ailuridae, a part of the broad superfamily Musteloidea that also includes the mephitids (skunks), procyonids (raccoons), and mustelids (weasels).[6][48][49] According to the most recent phylogenetic studies, the red panda's closest relatives within the Musteloidea superfamily are the procyonids and mustelids.[50]

It is not a bear, nor closely related to the giant panda, nor a raccoon, nor a lineage of uncertain affinities. Rather it is a basal lineage of musteloid, with a long history of independence from its closest relatives (skunks, raccoons, and otters/weasels/badgers).

— Flynn et al., Whence the Red Panda?, [6] p. 197

Evolutionary history

The red panda is considered a living fossil and only distantly related to the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), as it is naturally more closely related to the other members of the superfamily Musteloidea to which it belongs. The common ancestor of both pandas can be traced back to the Paleogene period tens of millions of years ago, with a wide distribution across Eurasia.[citation needed]

Fossils of the extinct red panda Parailurus anglicus were excavated in sites from China in the east to Britain in the west.[51] In 1977, a single tooth of Parailurus was discovered in the Pliocene Ringold Formation of Washington. This first North American record is almost identical to European specimens and indicates the immigration of this species from Asia.[52] In 2004, a tooth from a red panda species never before recorded in North America was discovered at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. The tooth dates from 4.5–7 million years ago. This species, described as Pristinailurus bristoli, indicates that a second, more primitive ailurine lineage inhabited North America during the Miocene. Cladistic analysis suggests that Parailurus and Ailurus are sister taxa.[51][53] Additional fossils of Pristinailurus bristoli were discovered at the Gray Fossil Site in 2010 and in 2012.[54][55] The discovery in Spain of the postcranial remains of Simocyon batalleri, a Miocene relative to the red panda, supports a sister-group relationship between red pandas and bears. The discovery suggests the red panda's "false thumb" was an adaptation to arboreal locomotion, independent of the giant panda's adaptation to manipulate bamboo, one of the most dramatic cases of convergent evolution among vertebrates.[56]

In 2020, results of a phylogenetic analysis of red panda samples showed that red pandas in China and the Himalayas were separated by a river about 250,000 years ago. Therefore, the two subspecies should be treated as distinct species. The analysed samples showed high levels of population structure across the red panda's range.[8] However, the results of this research should be treated with caution because of the sampling gap of more than 500 km (310 mi) between the two proposed species, and the lack of isolation-by-distance and morphometric analyses. Additionally, the use of the phylogenetic species concept for species delimitation in mammals has been associated with the unnecessary splitting of subspecies into species.[57][58]


Ailurus is adopted from the ancient Greek word αἴλουρος (ailouros), meaning "cat".[59] The specific epithet fulgens is Latin for "shining, bright".[60][61]

Native names

An illustration in the Chinese dictionary Zhonghua Da Zidian

The Lepcha call it sak nam. In Nepal, it is called bhālu birālo (bear-cat) and hābre. The Sherpa people of Nepal and Sikkim call it ye niglva ponva and wah donka.[62] The word wậː is Sunuwari meaning bear; in Tamang language, a small, red bear is called tāwām.[63] In the Kanchenjunga region of eastern Nepal, the Limbu people know red pandas as kaala (literally "dark") because of their underside pelage; villagers of Tibetan origin call them hoptongar.[64]

Additionally, Pocock lists the vernacular names ye and nigálya ponya (Nepal); thokya and thongwa (Limbu); oakdonga or wakdonka and woker (Bhotia); saknam sunam (Lepcha).[9] Nigálya may originate from the Nepali word निङालो niṅālo or nĩgālo, a small bamboo, Arundinaria intermedia, but also refers to a kind of small leopard, or cat-bear.[65] The word pónya may originate from the Nepali पञ्जा pajā ("claw") or पौँजा paũjā ("paw").[66] 'Poonya' also means "eater of bamboo".[67] The name panda could originate from panjā.[68]

In modern Chinese, the red panda is called xiăoxióngmāo (小熊猫 and 小熊貓, lesser or small panda, or literally "little bear cat"),[69] or 红熊猫/紅熊貓 (hóngxióngmāo, red panda or literally "red bear cat").[70]

English names

In English, the red panda is also called the "lesser panda", "true panda" and "common panda".[71][72][73]

Cultural depictions

The first known written record of the red panda occurs in a 13th-century Chinese scroll depicting a hunting scene between hunters and the red panda.[30]

The red panda was recognized as the state animal of Sikkim in the early 1990s,[74] and was the mascot of the Darjeeling Tea Festival.[30]

In 2005, Babu, a male red panda at Birmingham Nature Centre in Birmingham, England, escaped[75] and briefly became a media celebrity,[75][76] before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted "Brummie of the Year", the first animal to receive this honor.[75][76] Rusty, a male red panda at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, similarly attracted media attention when he briefly escaped in 2013.[77][78]

The name of the open-source Firefox web browser is said to have been derived from a nickname of the red panda: "fire fox".[79][80]

An anthropomorphic red panda was featured as Master Shifu, the kung fu teacher, in the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda, and its sequels Kung Fu Panda 2 in 2011 and Kung Fu Panda 3 in 2016.[81] The red panda Futa inspired the character of Pabu, the so-called "fire ferret" animal companion (primarily of Bolin), in the U.S. animated TV series The Legend of Korra.[82]

Jetstar Japan uses a red panda mascot character named "Jetta" (ジェッ太).[83]

An anthropomorphic red panda, Retsuko, is the main character of the TV anime and Netflix original series Aggretsuko.[84]

The red panda is primarily featured in the upcoming Pixar film, Turning Red.



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Further reading

External links