Red pandas are absolutely adorable tree-living animals. Surprisingly, they are not related to giant pandas – in fact, they are the original, genuine panda with a special scientific family while giant pandas are related to bears. The name panda could have originated from the Nepalese name for these animals, meaning “bamboo footed” and referring to both the giant panda and red panda’s food of choice. Red pandas are most closely related to the animal family that includes raccoons, skunks and weasels.
What makes these fascinating little creatures so interesting?
1. Red pandas are literally red
Their fur is the color of cinnamon – most people would think that this color is not the best for camouflage, but they disappear into the surroundings when they are in their native habitat. The trees that grow in their native habitat are usually covered with reddish-brown moss and white lichen.
Adult red pandas can weigh up to 7 kg and grow up to 110 cm in length including their tails. Their tails are bushy and help them to maintain balance when they are climbing trees. They also use their tails to wrap around themselves when it is particularly cold. Red panda fur is soft and dense underneath, with long, coarse fur on top to guard them from the harsh elements. The markings on their face help to protect their eyes from the sun.
2. Red pandas have a false thumb and cool feet
Giant pandas also have a false thumb, which is probably why taxonomists thought they were related to one another. This false thumb is actually an extended wrist bone and could be an adaptation to eating bamboo. For red pandas, they evolved the false thumb to help with tree climbing. They have flexible ankles and leg bones that allow them to move quickly among trees. Red pandas can climb head first down tree trunks with no issue, one of the only mammals to be able to do so.
Red pandas have fur on the soles of their feet instead of paw pads like most mammals. This could be to provide insulation from the cold and help with gripping onto mossy branches. Red panda feet have scent glands that are used to mark their territory. They also use anal glands and urine to mark their territory, and they smell these scents using a structure underneath their tongues that collect liquids and bring the liquids close to a gland in their mouths.
3. Red pandas become dormant to conserve energy when it’s too cold
Red pandas are usually active at dawn and at dusk, but they can be active any time of day in captivity. When it is extremely cold, red pandas settle into a dormant state called torpor where they lower their metabolic rate and only wake up every few hours to look for food. In this state, they can spend as little energy as sloths.
4. Red pandas are expressive little critters
About the size of a house cat, red pandas communicate using squeals, hisses, grunts, twitters and whistles as vocalizations. They also communicate with body language, bobbing their heads and arching their tails to get their message across.
Red pandas also tweet as part of their communication vocabulary. Tweets are reserved for communicating reproductive intent, though.
5. Red pandas eat bamboo just like giant pandas
While giant pandas eat nearly all of the bamboo they can access, red pandas only eat the nutritious leaf tips and tender bamboo shoots. They use their forepaws to grab the plant stem and tear leaves off with their mouths. Red pandas don’t exclusively eat bamboo, though – they often forage for fruit, grass, roots, insects and grubs. They also eat birds and small mammals.
Red pandas are actually listed under the carnivore class of animals, which includes omnivores, carnivores and vegetarians. They are considered carnivores because they come from the same family tree as other carnivores, but they prefer a mostly bamboo diet with the occasional insect. Funny enough, they like fake sugar – they prefer three kinds of artificial sugars: neotame, aspartame and sucralose. They are the only non-primate species that can taste aspartame.
6. Red pandas stay pregnant for a really long time
They are solitary, shy creatures except for when breeding season rolls around. Female red pandas have a gestation period ranging from three months to five months. They mate on the ground, and the female creates a nest in any hollows they can find. The nest is lined with soft plant material.
Red panda litters are usually made up of two cubs born already covered in fur. These cubs stay with the mother until they are fully grown, which takes about a year. Red pandas become sexually mature at about 18 months old and may live up to 23 years. They start to show signs of age past the 12 year mark, which is also when female red pandas stop breeding. Male red pandas are able to reproduce for their entire lives.
7. Red pandas are hunted because they’re cute
Their population decline is caused mostly because of deforestation, but red pandas are hunted for their fur or captured as part of the exotic pet trade. They are also caught in traps meant for other prey animals like wild pigs and deer.
8. Red pandas have a problem with cheese
Red pandas are an endangered species with less than 10,000 left in the wild. The main threats to their population are poaching and loss of habitat. Most red pandas are hosted in national parks, one of them being Nepal’s Langtang National Park located in the Himalayas.
In Langtang National Park, there are two cheese factories that use milk from chauri, a yak-cow hybrid reared by farmers in large herds. These herds of chauri are allowed to graze in the park. Red pandas in Langtang National Park face competition from the chauri as they share food sources. Herders and their dogs are threats to the red pandas as well, because they stress the red pandas out and the dogs hunt them to prevent threats to the valuable chauri.