Red pandas can be easily distinguished by its unique ruddy coat color, which acts like camouflage in the canopy of fir trees where branches are covered with clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens. Long, coarse guard hairs cover the entire body and there is a soft, dense, woolly undercoat. Their face is predominantly white with reddish brown "tear tracks" extending from the eye to the corner of the mouth. These markings could have evolved to keep the sun out of their eyes. Red pandas have long, bushy tails that help give this arboreal species balance. Their tails are marked with alternating red and buff rings.
Red pandas are the only Asian carnivores to have dense hair covering their feet; the nearest parallel is the polar bear. Red pandas have five toes that are widely separated and semi-retractable claws. In addition to anal glands and urine, they also use scent glands located between their footpads to mark territory. The scent marking glands on the bottom of red pandas' feet exude a colorless liquid, 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 adaptation. Their ankles are extremely flexible and rotate when climbing headfirst down a tree trunk. Red pandas climb well, using trees for shelter, to escape predators and sunbathe in the winter.
They have large round heads and short snouts with large pointed ears. They have extremely robust dentition in contrast with other carnivores their size, but they have a simple carnivore stomach despite their predominantly leaf-based diet. They share the giant panda's "thumb:" a modified wrist bone—that is used to help grasp bamboo when feeding.
Red pandas are the only living member of the family Ailuridae, and their taxonomic position has been a subject of much scientific debate. They were first described as belonging to the raccoon family in 1825, and this classification has been controversial ever since. They were placed in the raccoon family (Procyonidae) because of ecological characteristics and morphological similarities of the head, dentition, and ringed tail. Then, due to some agreements in the DNA, they were assigned to the bear family (Ursidae). However, most recent genetic research places red pandas into their own independent family: Ailuridae. Molecular phylogenetic studies show that they are an ancient species in the order Carnivora, superfamily Musteloidea and that they are probably most closely related to the group that includes weasels, raccoons and skunks.
Red pandas are considered by many to be living fossils. They have no close living relatives, and their nearest fossil ancestors, Parailurus, lived three to four million years ago. There may have been as many as three different species of Parailurus, all larger and more robust in the head and jaw, living in Europe and Asia, but possibly crossing the Bering Strait into America. Red pandas may be all that's left—a specialized offshoot surviving the Ice Age in a Chinese mountain refuge.
Adult red pandas weigh between 8.2 and 13.7 pounds (3.7 to 6.2 kilograms) and are 22 to 24.6 inches (56 to 62.5 centimeters) in length plus a tail of 14.6 to 18.6 inches (370 to 472 centimeters) long. Males and females look the same.
Red pandas range from northern Myanmar (Burma) to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet. Red pandas live in high altitude temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas and high mountains.
Red pandas are generally quiet, but at close proximity subtle vocalizations such as squeals, twitters and huff-quacks can be heard. They may also hiss or grunt. Predators include leopards and jackals. To escape predation, red pandas will climb trees or rocks, where they blend in with red lichen and mosses. Young cubs use a whistle, which sounds like a loud scream, to signal distress.
Unlike the giant panda, which consumes virtually every above-ground part of the bamboo culm (including the woody stem), red pandas selectively feed on the most nutritious leaf tips, and when available, tender shoots. Mechanically, red pandas feed like the giant panda by grasping the stem with their forepaws and shearing selected leaves off with their mouths. They may also forage on the ground for roots, succulent grasses, fallen fruits, insects and grubs and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.
Bamboo constitutes 85 to 95 percent of the red panda's diet. Because red pandas are obligate bamboo eaters, they are on a tight energy budget for much of the year.
At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the red pandas eat bamboo throughout the day and variable fruits such as grapes, chopped apple and banana daily, as well as small leaf-eater biscuits.
Red pandas breed from January through March in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, breeding season is June-August. The rapid change in photoperiod (day length) after the winter solstice instigates this breeding season. Mating occurs on the ground, and gestation appears to include a period of delayed implantation which is usually 114 to 145 days, but may be as short as 90 days or as long as 158 days. As reproduction expends a great deal of energy, it is believed that a long gestation period may be due to a slow metabolic rate. Late spring births also coincide with the most tender and digestible bamboo shoots and leaves emerging.
The females create a nest in tree holes, branch forks, tree roots or bamboo thickets and line it with moss, leaves and other soft plant material. A litter of usually two cubs is born sometime between May and July in the northern hemisphere. Newborns weigh between 3.9 and 4.6 ounces (110 to 130 g) and are completely furred to protect them from the cold environment. The offspring stay with the mother for about a year, which is when they normally reach adult size. Young will reach sexual maturity at round 18 months.
In confined conditions, where the male cannot get away from the protective female, aggression can occur between males and females possibly resulting in injury to cubs. In larger enclosures, the male is tolerated but will keep his distance. Once the cubs emerge, most males will interact amicably with them and even play with them. In fact, at certain stages, males will play with the rambunctious cubs more than females. On the other hand, it is usually not possible to keep two adult females together.
In human care, red pandas can be active anytime of the day but they are primarily crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). On average they are awake about 45 percent of the day, and they are more active in cooler weather, especially so during the winter mating season. However, in significantly cold temperatures red pandas can become dormant, lowering their metabolic rate and raising it every few hours to wake up and look for food. This adaptation has allowed them to spend almost as little energy as a sloth, which is exceptionally beneficial considering the low nutrition content of their diet. This species has also adapted behaviors to regulate temperature, such as curling up into a tight ball when it is cold, which serves to conserve body heat and energy expenditure. When temperatures are warm, red pandas will stretch out on a branch and pant to lower their body temperature.
Red pandas may live as long as 22 years. They show symptoms of age at around 12 to 14 years. While females do not breed after age 12, males continue to be reproductively capable.
Red pandas are endangered. The primary threats they face are habitat loss and degradation, human interference and poaching. They are legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar.
Researchers believe that the total population of red pandas has declined by 50 percent over the past two decades; it is probable that this decline will continue in the coming years. Red pandas are present in some protected areas throughout their range, including parks in Myanmar, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and China. However, despite regulations, livestock grazing, hunting and logging occur throughout many of these protected areas.
Habitat loss is primarily attributed to logging, demand for firewood, human encroachment, and farming. The decrease in suitable habitat for red pandas has coincided with the increase in human populations throughout Asia; with human encroachment comes livestock, agriculture and dogs, all of which produce different threats to this species. Herds of livestock can compete with red pandas for available bamboo leaves and degrade their habitat; clearing land to make way for crops reduces available food and shelter; and domestic dogs can hunt or transmit canine distemper to red pandas. Additionally, fragmentation resulting from habitat loss has resulted in inbreeding as populations become increasingly isolated.
Poaching and illegal trade of red pandas has reportedly been on the rise, and has also contributed to their population decline. The presence of red panda pelts, meat, and other items has increased in the trade of illegal products, as have instances of live red pandas trafficked into the pet trade.
These threats are compounded by increasing climate change and natural disasters, inadequate enforcement of laws and regulations, and limited investment in red panda conservation by local governments.
Red pandas have bred with some reliability in zoos throughout North America, Europe and Asia. As they decline in the wild, growing and maintaining self-sustaining populations in zoos is a high priority as a hedge against extinction and to learn more about species biology.
Part of the difficulty in conserving red pandas relates to their unique habitat. These animals require a specific set of circumstances to optimize survival—proximity to water sources, appropriate forest cover and altitude, and sufficient bamboo, among others—and as human encroachment continues to grow, these ideal habitats become increasingly more difficult to find. Adding additional stress to this situation is the fact that the bamboo that red pandas need to survive has difficulty growing in degraded habitats.
Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute have been at the forefront of red panda conservation, developing new reproductive technologies that will preserve sperm and egg DNA for future breeding and reintroduction to the wild programs. More than 100 surviving cubs have been born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute since 1962.
The IUCN has prioritized four major categories of action that need to be taken in order to conserve red pandas: protect against habitat loss, reduce habitat degradation, reduce deaths of red pandas (through poaching and removing man-made threats), and improve awareness.
The Zoo has two red pandas: Tusa, a male, and Asa, a female.
They came to the Zoo in December 2015 based on a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan.