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Not a Giant Panda Cub - Red Pandas May Actually Be Two Species

Are Red Pandas the cubs of Giant Pandas? As everyone knows, they are two completely different species. They only share similar behaviors due to convergent evolution. According to a paper published in the Science Advances journal at the beginning of this year however, scientists now believe that there are actually two distinct species of Red Pandas based on DNA analysis.

Evolutionary and taxonomic research determined that the Red Panda and Giant Panda did not evolve from a common ancestor. The many similarities in their behaviors were a result of “convergent evolution” to adapt to their environment. Both the Giant Panda and Red Panda have sixth digits on their forepaw. The sixth digit (also referred to as a ‘pseudo-thumb’) formed by a specialized radial sesamoid bone that grows from the wrist allows for bamboo to be grasped. As for the anal gland, it is used for marking territory. The next time you see a Giant or Red Panda “wiping its butt” on the ground, you’ll know that they are marking its territory. At the moment, “Yuan Bao” is still being cared for by its mother and isn’t too steady on its paws yet, so it doesn’t even need to know how to mark its territory as well. Most of its time is spent sleeping because it gains an inch with every nap.

Despite their similarities, Giant Pandas and Red Pandas have many differences as well. The arboreal Red Panda has a long tail to keep its balance. Also known as the “Fire Fox”, it has coffee-colored fur and is more closely related to the Racoon; the black and white Giant Pandas spend most of their time on the ground and have very short tails. They are more closely related to members of the Ursidae family.

On February 26 this year (2020), a Chinese research team published an article in the Science Advances journal (https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/9/eaax5751) on DNA analysis of the Chinese Red Panda found in Sichuan, Yunnan and Myanmar and the “Himalayan Red Panda” with paler facial fur and less distinct bands on its tail found mainly in the Himalayas, Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan. They claimed that there were obvious genetic differences between the two making them two distinct species. For the moment though, both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) still classify both as Ailurus fulgens.

The Red Panda once ranged across the whole of Eurasia but is now restricted to the southern and southeastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau between the elevations of 2,200 to 4,800m. It is classified as an “endangered” species and there may be less than 10,000 individuals left in the wild. For a long time, people thought that Red Pandas were all the same species. If such a small population is further divided into two species then their populations are in even direr straits. It is now the season when Red Pandas are at their most active again. When you come to the Zoo, take a close look at the Red Pandas’ appearance and behaviors. In addition to being a fan, you can become a Red Panda expert as well and make a contribution to their conservation.