Red Panda: Habits, Diet and Other Facts

Red Panda

The red or red panda, also known as the fire fox or fire cat (scientific name: Ailurus fulgens; from the Greek ailurus, cat; and from the Latin fulgens, brilliant), is a small arboreal mammal and the only species of the genus Ailurus. It belongs to the Ailuridae family, but has already been classified in the Procyonidae (raccoons) and Ursidae (bears) families.

The red panda is native to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and southern China, and is associated with high-altitude temperate forests and bamboo groves. It has a characteristic reddish-brown color, a long, fuzzy tail and a swaying gait due to the shortening of the forelegs. It is a solitary animal, territorial and with a twilight and nocturnal habit. Their food is mainly made up of bamboo; however, as an omnivore, it can ingest eggs, birds, insects and small mammals.

It is in danger of extinction, due to habitat destruction by human expansion, agriculture, livestock and the scarcity of natural resources. Illegal hunting is also another important factor contributing to the decline in the panda population. It is a common animal in zoos, mainly in North America and Europe, reproducing well in captivity.


Red Panda on tree

Frédéric Cuvier (1825) initially described the red panda as a close relative of raccoons (Procyonidae), although he gave the name Ailurus based on its superficial similarities to domestic cats. The classification of the red panda has been controversial since its discovery, and has been positioned among the Ursidae, Procyonidae, Ailuropodidae, or in a family of its own, the Ailuridae. This uncertainty arose from the difficulty in determining whether certain characteristics of the genus Ailurus are phylogenetically conservative or are derived and convergent with species with similar ecological habits.

Several phylogenetic hypotheses, based on molecular and morphological analysis, have emerged over the years, positioning the red panda: (1) closer to Procyonidae than Ursidae; (2) more related to Ursidae than to Procyonidae; (3) intermediate between Ursidae and Procyonidae; (4) related to the giant panda but of uncertain placement; (5) more related to Musteloidea; or (6) represents a monotypic lineage within the Arctoidea, but of unresolved placement.

Evidence based on the fossil record, serology, karyotyping, behavior, anatomy and reproduction reflects greater affinity with the Procyonidae than with the Ursidae. However, ecological and food specializations and the distinct geographic distribution compared to modern procionidae support separation into a family of its own.

Recently, Flynn and collaborators, through molecular analyzes confirmed the position of the genus Ailurus in a different family from the Procionids and Ursids, and determined the inclusion of this family among the superfamily Musteidea (Ailuridae + Procyonidae + Mephitidae + Mustelidae).

He is not a bear, nor akin to the giant panda, he is not a raccoon, nor is he a lineage of uncertain affinities. Rather, it is a basal lineage of Musteloidea, with a long history of independence from its close relatives (Mephitidae, Procyonidae, and Mustelidae). This long separation from the other musteloids may prove recognition of the red panda lineage as a distinct high-level taxonomic entity (ie Ailuridae), although the elevation of the Ailuridae taxon may not in itself be instructive of its precise phylogenetic position to other musteloids and arctoids.

In 2020, after analyzing the DNA of 65 animals from seven different populations, the scientists found substantial divergences between two species: the Chinese red pandas (Ailurus fulgens styani) and the Himalayan red pandas (Ailurus fulgens fulgens). These two now-determined distinct phylogenetic species were separated about 22 million years ago.

Recognizing the existence of two distinct species can help guide conservation efforts for this mammal.

These animals are in danger of extinction: in 2020 there are only 10,000 specimens.


There are currently two subspecies of red panda: the western red panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens F. Cuvier, 1825), found in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan, and the styans red panda (Ailurus fulgens refulgens Milne-Edwards, 1874), found in southern China and northern Myanmar. The western panda has a lighter coat on the face, while the styan pandas have more "dramatic" facial markings, another distinguishing feature between the two subspecies is the larger size of the styans in relation to the western one.

Evolutionary history

Similar fossils of Ailurus fulgens are not known. However, several fossils of species related to the red panda have been discovered in North America, Europe and Asia. There are about eight genera in the Ailuridae family, however, only Ailurus is current. Recently a fossil, named Pristinailurus bristoli, discovered from the Miocene of North America, was considered the oldest and most primitive member of the family. Other fossil records have been made in eastern China and western Great Britain.

Geographical distribution and habitat

Geographical distribution and habitat of red panda

Red pandas are found mainly in temperate forests, between 2200 and 4800 meters in altitude, in the Himalayas, mainly in the western foothills region of western Nepal, southern Tibet, Sikkim, Assam and Bhutan, and in northern mountains from Myanmar and southern China, in the provinces of Sichuan (Hengduan Mountains) and Yunnan (Gongshan Mountains). The existence of red pandas in southwestern Tibet and northern Arunachal Pradesh is very likely, but has not yet been documented. It went extinct in the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai.

Its presence in the mountains of southern China constitutes a refuge during the last Pleistocene glaciation. In China, the red panda and the giant panda are sympatric in the mountains of Qionglai, Minshan, Xiangling, and Liangshan in Sichuan province.

The distribution of pandas is disjoint, with the Brahmaputra River gorge, which curves around the eastern end of the Himalayas, as a natural division between the two subspecies, although some authors suggest that the variety A. f. fulgens extends further east, in Yunnan, China.

Red pandas inhabit regions of moderate temperature (10-25 °C) with few annual changes and prefer wooded mountainous areas, mainly composed of coniferous and deciduous forests, especially with old rhododendron trees and, of course, with bamboo groves.

Physical characteristics

Physical characteristics of red panda

Red pandas are of moderate length, with a relatively long, fuzzy tail, marked with about 12 rings alternating red circles and suede, not being prehensile. The head is rounded, the muzzle short, and the ears large, erect and pointed. It has a thick coat over the body. In the ventral region the coat is soft, woolly and dense. The face is predominantly white with reddish-brown tear markings below the eyes. The coat on the back is also reddish-brown, while on the underside it is a uniform black. The limbs are black and the soles of the feet and hands are covered with dense white hair. There is no sexual dimorphism in color and size of males and females. The thoracic limbs are arched inward, causing your gait to sway. Your feet are plantigrade. It also has semi-retractable claws and, like the giant panda, it has a "false thumb" which is actually an extension of the wrist bone.

The red panda has some of its own anatomical characteristics that characterize the species and, therefore, the genus Ailurus. The skull is robust with poor development of the zygomatic arch, sagittal crest and post-orbital process. The palatine bone extends beyond the last molar, the mesopterigoid fossa is compressed anteriorly, and the auditory bulla is small and medially expanded. The postglenoid process is wide and curved anteriorly, and the alisphenoid canal is present. The mandible is robust but relatively short in relation to the height of the rami, and the mandibular symphysis is compressed. The coronoid process is tightly hooked posteriorly and the mandibular condyles are large. It has a strong dentition in contrast to the Procionidae.


Red Panda

Red pandas are twilight (most active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal animals, spending the day sleeping in tree branches or in burrows. They are heat sensitive and their ideal temperature is between 17°C and 25°C, and cannot tolerate temperatures above 25°C. As a result, red pandas sleep during the hottest hours of the day in shaded treetops, often stretching out on forked branches or burrows.

Red pandas are very skilled and acrobatic animals, living predominantly in trees. They inhabit demarcated territorial areas and are often solitary, rarely living in couples or in family groups. They look for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees with speed and agility, and after finding food, they use their forepaws to put the food in their mouths. Red pandas drink by dipping their paw in water and licking it. Its main predators are snow leopard (Uncia uncia) and humans.

Red pandas begin their daily activity with a ritual bath of their coat, licking their front paws and massaging their back, abdomen and flanks, as well as rubbing their back and belly along trees or rocks. They then patrol their territory, demarcating it with a secreted substance with a strong smell from their anal gland and with their urine.

If a red panda feels threatened or in danger, although normally silent, they can produce a series of short chirps. When annoyed, red pandas can emit whistles and a series of snorts. They often try to run up an inaccessible column of rock or a tree. If they can no longer run away, they stand on their hind legs, which makes them appear taller to intimidate the assailant and allow them the possibility of using sharp semi-retractable claws on their front legs, which can inflict substantial wounds. Red pandas are friendly but not helpless, and attack when they feel threatened.

The red panda, despite having a digestive system better suited to a carnivorous diet, is an omnivorous animal that feeds mostly on bamboo although it cannot digest cellulose, so it must consume a large amount of bamboo to survive. Their diet consists of approximately two-thirds of bamboo, and he supplements it with berries, fruits, mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichens and grasses, in addition to occasionally feeding on baby birds, eggs, small rodents and insects. In captivity, they also feed on meat. Red pandas are excellent climbers and primarily forage on trees.

Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and have greater digestibility in summer and autumn, intermediate in spring, and low in winter. These variations are related to the nutritional content of bamboo. The red panda does not completely digest bamboo, especially cellulose and cell wall components. This implies that microbial digestion plays only a small role in your digestive strategy, similar to the giant panda. The transit of bamboo through the intestine of the red panda is very fast (between two and four hours). To survive on this low-calorie diet, the panda has to select high quality parts such as tender leaves and buds. They eat a lot of food (more than 1.5 kilograms of fresh leaves and 4 kilograms of fresh sprouts daily) in order to maximize nutrient absorption as it passes through the digestive tract quickly.


Adult red pandas rarely interact outside the mating season. Both sexes can mate with more than one partner during the season. Mating takes place between mid-January and early March (winter period), and offspring are born between June and late July (spring and summer). The gestation period ranges from 112 to 158 days, and the female gives birth to between one and four cubs, which are born blind and weigh 110-130 grams. A few days before birth, the female begins to gather material such as grass and leaves to use in making the nest. The nest is usually located in a hollow tree or a rock crevice.

After birth, the female cleans the pups and thus establishes an olfactory link with each pup. In the first few days, she spends about 60% to 90% of her day with the newborns. After a week, she spends more time outside the nest, returning only a few hours a day to feed and clean them. Puppies open their eyes at eighteen days of age, and at ninety days old they already have the typical coloration for the species, and ingest the first solid food at 125-135 days. The litter remains in the nest for twelve weeks. They then leave him but remain with his mother, being weaned at 6-8 months of age.

Males only very rarely help with rearing the next generation and only if they live in pairs or small groups. Red pandas begin to become sexually mature at 18 months of age. Their average lifespan is 8-10 years, but they can reach a maximum of 15 years. There is a record of a captive animal in China that reached 17 years and 6 months of age.

The red panda reproduces well in captivity. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling has been thriving in the conservation breeding of red pandas. The Valley Zoo in Edmonton has been a successful breeding program and has had two pairs of red pandas born there, one pair in 2007 and the other in 2008.


The red panda is classified by the IUCN as being vulnerable, and on CITES, appears in "Appendix I". The population was estimated at less than 2,500 adult animals in 1999, and between 16,000 and 20,000 in 2001. The main threats to the red panda are habitat loss from agriculture, livestock and deforestation, illegal hunting and changes in species dynamics natives. The relative importance of these different factors varies between the different regions in which the red panda is found and is not very well understood.

The red panda is protected in all the countries in which it lives and its hunting is considered illegal. In southwestern China, the red panda is hunted for its coat and especially its highly valuable shaggy tail, from which hats are produced. In these areas, the skin is often used for cultural ceremonies and at weddings. The "hats" are considered good luck charms and worn by Chinese newlyweds. Until recently, red pandas were captured and sold to zoos. In an article in the International Zoo News, Munro (1969) describes that he personally captured 350 pandas in seventeen years. This number has decreased substantially in recent years, due to CITES' actions in combating the international trafficking of wild animals. However, poaching continues and they are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices. In some places in Nepal and India, the red panda is kept as a pet.

Deforestation can have a number of effects on the red panda: loss of forest to agriculture can inhibit the dispersal of individuals and result in fragmentation of population distribution, as well as reducing habitat quality by removing old trees that provide shelter. and decrease regeneration of bamboo groves.[14] Competition for food from domestic animals is not very significant, but cattle can destroy bamboo groves by trampling.

The situation and conservation of the red panda varies in the different countries it inhabits:

  • Nepal — has one of the highest deforestation rates in Asia. It has several protected areas (Langtang National Park, Dhorpan Game Reserve, Sagarmatha National Park, Makulu National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, and Rara National Park), however, some suffer from human pressure;
  • Bhutan — probably one of the most unspoiled countries in Asia. It still maintains large areas of forest. There are two protected areas (Jigme Dorji Wildlife Sanctuary and Thrumung La National Forest) but no records of red pandas;
  • India (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal) — has three protected areas with the occurrence of red pandas (Khangchendzonga National Park, Namdapha National Park and Singalila National Park), in addition to a coordinated conservationist policy;
  • Myanmar — has a high rate of deforestation and there are no protected areas in the Himalayan region;
  • China — has several protected areas with the occurrence of the panda (Wolong National Park, Tangjiahe Reserve, Medog National Reserve and Wanglang Park).
The number of pandas is also varied. In China it is estimated between 6,000 and 7,000 individuals, in India, between 5,000 and 6,000, and in Nepal, a few hundred. There are no records from Bhutan or Myanmar.


The red panda is relatively common in zoos around the world. In 1992 there were more than 300 animals distributed in 85 zoos. In 2006, there were 511 individuals of the fulgens subspecies in 173 institutions, and 306 of the refulgens (=styani) in 81 institutions. It reproduces with relative success in captivity, as long as its needs are met. There are several regional captive breeding programs (North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and China), which are coordinated in a global program under the care of International Studbook and International Red Panda Management Group. In North America there is a population of 182 individuals (2001) who are maintained and managed by the Species Survival Plan (SSP).


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