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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Red Pandas

Although they’re not domesticated, these tree-hugging cuties are actually kept as pets in some parts of the world.

Photo by Jared Lin Jie Ruei / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Jason G. Goldman, Scientific American

Here's one thing you already knew: red pandas are adorable. While they're not domesticated and therefore are probably not suitable as pets, some people keep them as pets anyway - especially in Nepal and India - and upload their adorable hijinks to the internet for the world to see.

Here are seven other facts about red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) that you might not already know.

1. Red pandas aren't pandas. Despite their name, red pandas aren't actually closely related to giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), but it wasn't until the last ten or fifteen years that scientists settled upon just where red pandas fit on the evolutionary tree of life. It was clear that red pandas were members of the taxonomic "infraorder" Arctoidea, placing them in a group with bears, pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus), raccoons, and mustelids (weasels, skunks, otters, and badgers). Research published in 2000 in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution determined that they were not most closely related to bears or to raccoons as had been previously suggested. Instead, red pandas form their own phylogenetic family, alongside skunks, raccoons, and mustelids. From a genetic perspective, they're more like the skunks and raccoons you might find in your own backyard than the giant pandas with whom they share habitats.


2. Herbivorous carnivoran. As a member of the Order Carnivora, the red panda is a carnivoran. But unlike most carnivorans, it's not actually a carnivore. That is, the red panda is a mostly an herbivore. It's actually one way in which the red panda is more like the giant panda than its genetic relatives: its diet consists almost entirely of bamboo leaves, plus bamboo shoots when in season, and the occasional fruit, flower, and (rarely) an odd egg or bird. The other carnivoran who is also primarily herbivorous? The binturong, the funny-looking bearcat that smells like popcorn.

3. Sweet tooth. Speaking of diet, red pandas like fake sugar. In a 2009 study in The Journal of Heredity, researchers presented a variety of Carnivoran species with bowls of plain water, naturally sweetened water, or artificially sweetened water. They discovered that red pandas preferred three artificial sugars: neotame, sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal). That makes them the only non-primate species known to be able to taste aspartame, an ability previously thought unique to Old World monkeys, apes, and humans.

4. Blending in. Take a look at the reddish-orange tint of the red panda's coat and you might not immediately think "good for camouflage," but that's where you'd be mistaken. It turns out that the red panda is pretty good at hiding from predators by disappearing into the branches of fir trees which are usually covered with reddish-brown moss. Which is pretty handy because death by snow leopard seems like a particularly bad way to go.

5. A Cheesy Problem. Okay, stay with me on this one. Red pandas, classified as "vulnerable" by the IUCN, are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, despite being protected by legislation in the countries where they're found. Because of that habitat loss, wild populations of red pandas are increasingly fragmented. One fragment that hosts a population of around forty red pandas is Nepal's Langtang National Park, in the Himalayas. Even within the national park, those forty pandas are fragmented into four groups. In Langtang, the red pandas have another problem, and it's cheese. You see, the park is also home to two cheese factories that produce a combined 14,000 kilograms of cheese each year to be sold in nearby Kathmandu. To amass the 140,000 liters of milk necessary to make the cheese, farmers keep large herds of chauri, a yak-cow hybrid, and those herds are permitted to graze within the park. The competition over food sources with the chauri combined with other threats to their lives from the herders and from their dogs has led to the death of many, many red pandas. "This problem might be solved," write a pair of researchers in the journal Conservation Biology, "by reducing cheese production and restricting the number of chauri while commensurately increasing the price of cheese so that farmers’ income from milk could remain the same."

6. Red pandas tweet. They don't tweet in 140 characters like you or I do, but they tweet nonetheless. Actually, to be accurate, the sound they make is known as "twittering." Have a listen.

According to researchers at the National Zoo, twittering seems to mainly used to signal reproductive intent. Which, now that I think about it, is not all that different from some twitterers of our own species either.

7. It Could Have Been Called The Wah. Red pandas have different names depending on where you are. In Nepal, they're called bhalu biralo. Sherpas call the critter ye niglva ponva or wah donka. But the Western world did not always call it a red panda. In 1821, the English naturalist Major General Thomas Hardwicke made a presentation on the creature at the Linnean Society in London. That is typically regarded as the moment the red panda became known in Western science. In his presentation, titled "Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains," he argued that the animal be called a "wha," explaining, "It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. It is also called Chitwa." Unfortunately, Hardwicke's paper wasn't published until 1827, by which time the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier had already published a description of the species along with a drawing. Naming rights, therefore, went to Cuvier.

See more at Scientific American

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