Is the Red Panda Really a Panda?
Red pandas (also called “lesser pandas”) are cute, furry little creatures native to Asia, specifically the Eastern Himalayas region and southwest China. Their fluffy, cuddly features have led them to be common fixtures in viral videos, cartoons (such as the Sanrio character Aggretsuko) and movies – including the recently released Turning Red from the renowned animation studio Pixar. In this fun film, a young girl named Mei discovers that she turns into a huge fluffy red panda every time she experiences exteme emotions.
But what exactly IS a red panda? Going by its name alone, its fur is certainly red in coloration over much of its body. But what about the panda part? Is it related to that well-known black and white bear, the giant panda, whose cuteness has also inspired countless viral videos, cartoons, and film franchises? Let’s find out!
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About the Red Panda
First, let’s get to know the red panda a bit. It’s a small mammal that looks a bit like a cat or a fox, or perhaps a raccoon. It has a a reddish body, white markings on its face and ears, black legs and underbelly, and a striped tail. It grows to about two feet long and can weigh a little over 30 pounds, about the size of a small-to-medium sized dog.
They live in forests in Asia, where they eat mostly plants including bamboo, fruits, flowers, seeds and sometimes eggs. It is currently endangered, with the biggest threats being destruction and fragmentation of its native forest habitat. As human populations spread out and increase, the forests these critters call home are destroyed, or sometimes broken into smaller forests which can cut panda populations off from each other. This can lead to a lower genetic diversity, which the animals need to maintain a thriving population.
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Which Came First?
Since the giant panda, or panda bear, is one of the most recognizable animals on the planet, you may think that the red panda got its name from its resemblance to the larger, less colorful panda. But actually, the opposite is true!
Red pandas were first formally classified scientifically by zoologist Frederic Cuvier in 1825. The giant panda, meanwhile, was not discovered by the Western world until 1869, almost 50 years later (though it had long been known in its native China for centuries, and they called the animal “mo”).
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At the time, what we now know as the red panda was simply called “panda”, and the giant panda was named due to its resemblance to the smaller red-furred creature. The “original” panda was then given the qualifiers “red” or “lesser” to differentiate between the two animals that now shared the name “panda”.
What Does Panda Mean?
These days, “panda” is a word that is very familiar to most people. But what does it actually mean, and where did the word come from? There are a couple of theories.
Though the word “panda” comes from the French, it is believed to be based on a word in Nepali, the native language of Nepal. Which word, though, is a point of contention. Some believe it comes from the word “ponya” which refers to the distinctive wrist bone of the red panda that functions much like a thumb, allowing it to grasp and hold objects. It may also come from the word “pajā” (which means “claw”) or “paũjā” (which means “paw”).
These are just educated guesses though, and the true origin of the word “panda” may be lost to time.
Are Red Pandas Really Pandas?
So now, we come to the big question: is the red panda really a panda? Well, based on the information above, one could argue that the red panda is actually the original panda. But the odds are, when you see the word panda by itself, it’s the giant panda you’re picturing in your head. But what’s their connection? Are they both related, or is their resemblance superficial?
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The two animals do share some characteristics. Both are furry mammals with somewhat similar markings around their eyes. Both also enjoy a diet that mostly consists of bamboo. Finally, they both share a “pseudo-thumb”, the unique wrist bone we mentioned earlier that allows them to grasp the bamboo they love to eat so much.
With these shared features, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the two animals were closely related, despite their size differences. And for a long time, scientists felt the same. For much of the first half of the 1900s, both the red and giant panda were thought to be closely related to the raccoon. They were even placed in the raccoon family - Procyonidae.
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However, a scientific study of their teeth and heads led scientists to propose that these animals should be placed together in their own family, the Ailuridae, and they were now thought to be more closely related to bears than raccoons.
Finally, in the 1990s, the truth was discovered – the two pandas were not closely related to each other at all. Giant pandas were, in fact, true bears of the family Ursidae, which includes black, brown and polar bears, among others. Red pandas, meanwhile, were now known to be closer relatives of raccoons, though not quite as close as previously thought.
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This new classification meant that red pandas would remain in the family Ailuridae, as the sole member living today. This family is part of the superfamily Musteloidea, which includes raccoons, badgers, weasels, wolverines, skunks and otters. However, as far as close living relatives go, the red panda doesn’t really have any.
This is why red pandas are sometimes referred to as “living fossils”. This informal term is used to describe an organism with no close living relatives that has changed relatively little over a long span of time, sometimes millions of years.
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There you have it – while the red panda is the first animal that can lay claim to the name “panda”, it isn’t closely related to the more well-known and recognizable giant panda. It’s its own thing – a cute and cuddly living fossil that needs to be protected, so it can continue to delight with its antics for generations to come!