Red pandas
Credit: Nathan Bittinger via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/nate_kate/359678988/

When people hear the word "panda", usually an image of an extremely large and cuddly looking black and white animal comes to mind. However, these pandas are only one type of panda. Another animal that shares the Panda name is the red panda and its attributes are very different from the more commonly known black and white giant panda. In fact, from a scientific perspective, it is less like the giant panda and more like the weasel, raccoon and skunk.

Over the years this critter has been classified and re-classified until scientists decided it was its own classification and gave the red panda its own taxonomic position. Ultimately, experts decided on a scientific name - Ailurus fulgens. There are two subspecies: Ailurus fulgens fulgens and Ailurus fulgens styani.

Red Pandas are much smaller, as they typically grow to the size of an average house cat. They share a quite a bit of a resemblance to the aforementioned raccoon. Unlike the black and white panda, these animals have big bushy tails that are about a foot and a half long, almost half of its overall body size. In cold mountain climates where they live (the pandas are mostly found in high elevations), this critter will use its tail as a way to keep warm.

Red Panda
Credit: nickliv via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/47500379@N08/14374811381

That big tail a red panda possesses can provide a good heat source during the chilly months.

A Day in the Life of a Red Panda

Red pandas are "night owls". During the day, this panda spends most of its time in trees, sleeping away the hours away until dusk arrives. These nocturnal, furry critters prefer to forage for food at dusk, during the overnight time and at dawn. They are also excellent climbers. It grows fur on its feet to help protect its soles and aid in climbing slippery trees. The fur also helps the red panda keep itself warm in the snow.

A sleeping red panda
Credit: Thomas Binderhofer/Public Domain

Red pandas sleep the daylight hours away and come awake and active at dusk, spending the nighttime hours looking for food. 

Red pandas are also generally considered as herbivores but, like their ancestors, they are built to be carnivores, as they have large, strong and sharp teeth. Like its larger counterpart, the red panda primarily eats bamboo, but is slightly pickier than the giant panda. It is only willing to eat the plant's leaves and most tender bamboo shoots. This food source is a poor form of nutrition, so they spend about 13 hours searching for food to eat. 

In addition to bamboo, they are also willing to fill dietary needs through a variety of other foods, making them actually omnivores. This critter's diet may include other food items such as fruits, grasses, nuts, roots and eggs, as National Geographic notes. Red pandas are also not adverse to the idea of eating insects and rodents.

A probably lesser known fact, in 2009, scientists published a report stating red pandas also have a sweet tooth. A study (published by Journal of Heredity) found their preference was for artificial sweeteners - aspartame, neotame and sucralos. [6] These animals, along with six other related species, including ferrets, genets, meerkats, mongooses and lions, were studied. Most of the other species stuck to non-sweet diets, however, these critters were more open to exploration of new tastes.

Mating Customs

Generally, red pandas are shy animals that spend time in solitude, however, when it comes time to mate, these furry animals tend to become a lot more social. Once mating is successful, the gestation period until birth occurs is pretty long - about 135 days.

Birthing generally takes place during the spring and summer months and, with each birth, anywhere from one to four babies may be born. Its babies live in the nest for about three months and spend this time with the mother. Males do not typically care for or get too involved with their young. A mature red panda will have grown to be between 7 and 14 pounds, 20 to 25 inches (body length) and 14 to 19 inches (tail). Proportionally, quite a large tail!

Red Panda at National Zoo (Washington D.C.)
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

This red panda at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. was asleep and one of the kids at the zoo said, "I wish he was awake and looking at us". Almost, if by cue, this cute little guy turned his head and looked up.

Regional Habitats

Red pandas are primarily found in the mountainous regions of Asia. Habitats include living in Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal. These critters are also found in central China. However, unfortunately, they are an endangered species due to deforestation. The natural and preferred areas of living of these animals are consistently being destroyed through commercial logging and agriculture. Another problem that is harming the species are the poachers, as these animals are often killed for their pelts, being sold in illegal markets. Reportedly, this is occurring primarily in China.

Other Fun Facts About Red Pandas

  • This critters have a false thumb. It's not a thumb, but an extended wrist bone.
  • A red panda's life span is typically about 8 years.
  • It takes about 12 months for a baby to reach adult size, about 11 pounds.
  • They also can lose about 15 percent of their body weight during the winter months. [7]
  • Firefox, another name for red panda, adopted two of them in 2010. [8]
  • There are less than 10,000 red pandas in the wild. Some estimates say the number is as low as a couple of thousand. In 2010 only 2,500 red pandas remained in the wild, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have developed a plan called the "Species Survival Plan".

Experts are trying to save the species by caring for them, encouraging them to breed and have more offspring.  Many zoos are having success with breeding red pandas with several being born in 2014 in various facilities.

Red panda playing
Credit: Rob Young on Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic w/Attribution https://www.flickr.com/photos/rob-young/869992747

Many members of this species of panda are in captivity as a means to try to help the species survive its endangered status.

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Areas of the world where the red pandas are most commonly found (in China, these animals are mostly found in the central region - this map is simply marked "China")

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Bhutan
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Myanmar (Burma)
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Nepal
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China