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Creature Feature: Red Panda Scent-Marking

This update was written by Asia Trail keeper Mariel Lally. 

Red pandas spend the majority of their time in the treetops of the bamboo forests in India, Nepal and China. As solitary animals, they rarely encounter other red pandas outside of breeding season, although their territories may overlap on occasion.

As a way for red pandas to communicate with one another—which includes marking territory or indicating their readiness to breed—they use scents. Red pandas are able to pass along information to others by urinating or rubbing scent-producing glands at the base of their tail on a surface. When they mark, it looks like a “wiggle” dance! They leave behind a reddish liquid that tells other red pandas information about their sex, age, fertility and more.

For marking territory, red pandas have another set of scent glands located between their footpads. These glands exude a colorless liquid that is odorless to humans. Red pandas test the odors using the bottom of their tongues, which has a cone-like structure for collecting the liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside their mouths. They are the only carnivores with this interesting adaptation!

In the video, you can see the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s male red panda, Jackie, testing female Asa’s scent on some perching furniture in the exhibit, then leaving behind his own information for her!

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Zoo News. Visit red pandas Asa and Jackie at Asia Trail.