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The Alluring Red Panda

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Red Panda
Red Panda. Photo: Unsplash/ Joshua J. Cotten

Its International Red Panda Day! Many of us know about this little creature with a bear-like body and thick cinnamon red fur, perhaps showing off its agility from tree to tree. Did you ever think whether the red panda is related to the giant panda because its face somewhat resembles that of the latter? Actually, recent DNA analysis has shown that the red panda is not at all related to the more famous, larger giant panda found in China. While the giant panda is related to bears, the smaller red panda is related to the group that includes skunks, weasels, and raccoons. There are many other morphological characteristics that make the red panda and giant panda different, however, a common trait between the two is that both relish bamboo as food.

So, what are the other interesting characteristics of these red arboreal critters? Let us explore them!

Name Origins

Although the origin of why the red panda is in fact called “panda” is still unclear, but people believe it is derived from the local name for panda in Nepal, called nigalya ponya, which means “bamboo eater”. Western people are the ones who started calling them pandas because they could not pronounce the local name. Interestingly, despite the popularity of the giant panda, its discovery occurred almost 48 years after the red panda! When the Westerners found the giant panda in China and discovered that it also ate bamboo, they gave it the name “giant panda” because of its immense size.

Giant Panda
Giant Panda. Photo: Unsplash/Debbie Molle

The Agile Red Panda

Slightly larger than a household cat, red pandas live in trees in high-altitude, temperate forests of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, and parts of China. Since they are very active in trees, they have long, bushy tails for balancing. They weigh approximately 8 - 17 lbs (3.6 - 7.7 kgs) and are about 22 - 24.6 inches (56 to 62.5 cms) long, with a tail of around 14.6 - 18.6 inches (37 - 47.2 cms).

Red Panda
Red Panda. Photo: Unsplash/ Samuele Giglio

Red pandas are solitary creatures, but very territorial, often defending their territory by constantly keeping vigil on intruders. Generally quiet, they exhibit few varied sounds such as hissing, chirping, squeal and twitter. They will scamper quickly high up a tree or a rock to escape a predator such as a leopard or a jackal.

Red Panda and its territory
Red panda and its territory. Photo: Unsplash/Julien Mussard

Although the territories of red and giant pandas overlap, red pandas can tolerate much colder weather, therefore, they can be found at a much higher elevation compared to the giant panda. Red pandas are found at altitudes of about 7,200 -15,700 feet (2,200 - 4,800 m). On the other hand, giant pandas are found at around 4,200 to 12,000 feet (1,300-3,600 m).


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Red Panda Diet: Bamboo, Bamboo, and more Bamboo!

Bamboo consists of about 95% of a red panda’s diet. Whereas the giant pandas eat every part of a bamboo tree above the ground, the red pandas are more selective. They only eat the tender shoots or pick only the most nutritious leaf tips. Just like the giant pandas, the red pandas also hold the stem of the bamboo stems with their forepaws and nip off the leaves using their teeth. Like the giant pandas, the red pandas also have an astonishing feature in their wrists. They have an appendage that acts like an opposable thumb, which they can deftly maneuver. It is to be noted that bamboo is the major food source for the red panda but not the only one. They also look for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects, and grubs, in trees and on ground. They will occasionally kill and eat small birds and mammals as well.

Bamboo, diet of a red panda. Photo: Unsplash/Maurits Bausenhart

Unfortunately, red pandas continue to be endangered and researchers anticipate that there may be only 2,500 red pandas remaining in the wild today. Doing our part to minimize our carbon footprint, being cognizant about our ecosystem, and educating ourselves and others about these animals will help bring these amazing creatures back in abundance.


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