The third Saturday in September is International Red Panda Day, thanks to the Red Panda Network! You may have heard of the giant panda, one of the most iconic and popular animals around, but the red panda is far less well known and much more mysterious. What exactly is a red panda? It’s a small mammal native to Asia that lives in bamboo forests high in the Himalayas. They eat mostly bamboo, as well as fruits, roots, insects and grass. The red panda is also known by the names lesser panda and red bear-cat.
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The red panda gets its name from its reddish-brown coloration, as well as its superficial resemblance to the giant panda, both in terms of its appearance and feeding habits. Both the giant panda and red panda eat bamboo and have unique dark markings around their eyes. For a while, it was believed that the two were related, and were placed in the family Ailuropodidae. But scientists weren’t quite sure where to put the red panda, and it bounced around to the raccoon family (Procyonidae), bear family (Ursidae), and ultimately its own family (Ailuridae).
It’s now believed that its closest relatives are the procyonids (raccoons and their relatives) and the mustelids (which includes weasels, otters, badgers, ferrets and wolverines). The red pandas are still in their own family, but with these other groups it forms the “superfamily” called Musteloidea. This superfamily shares a common ancestor with pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). The red panda is considered a “living fossil” as it is only distantly related to other living animals, and its closest relatives went extinct around four million years ago.
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Red pandas are currently endangered, and it is believed around 10,000 animals currently exist in the wild. In China, the population is thought to have decreased by 40% over the last 50 years. The biggest threat is habitat loss, but they are also hunted and poached for their fur, and sometimes captured for the illegal pet trade. They have a slow birth rate, which can make it difficult for the population to recover from these threats. They are currently protected throughout much of their range, and a captive breeding program is helping to release more animals into the wild.
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: A red panda named Futa, a resident of the Chiba Zoo in Japan, became a minor celebrity due to his ability to stand upright on two legs for ten seconds at a time.