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The scientific name for the red panda means "fire-colored cat," which refers to its cinnamon red coat, occasionally saddled with orange or yellow, and its cat-like face with cream-colored mask. The legs and belly shade to black in striking contrast to the red body, and the tail is fully furred and more-or-less banded, with rings on some individuals being more pronounced than on others. Red pandas average 22-25 inches in length, not including a tail of 15-19 inches, and weigh 7-14 pounds.
Distribution and Habitat
Red pandas are found throughout the Himalayan mountains between 4,900 and 13,000 feet in elevation in northern Burma, Nepal, the Sikkim region of India, and the districts of western Sichuan and Yunnan in China. They prefer habitats with plenty of fallen logs, tree stumps, and fresh water, as well as an understory of bamboo.
Although the red panda's overall range is quite extensive, individual populations are fairly scattered and isolated, and it is believed that there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas in the wild.
Habits and Behaviors
Red pandas are expert climbers and when not foraging are usually found in the trees. They have an ungainly walk on the ground but are much more agile in the trees, using their tail for balance, although it is not prehensile.
Red pandas are solitary except for brief pairings during the breeding season and mothers with young. The home ranges of female red pandas often measure about one square mile, while males can live in areas twice that size. Male home ranges frequently overlap with at least one female home range and sometimes expand during the breeding season. Because red pandas constantly need to conserve energy, they only cover 650 to 1,000 feet of their home ranges per day and about 25% of their home ranges per month.
Red pandas use urine, secretions from anal glands, and scents from glands on the pads of their feet to mark their territories. They have also been known to use communal latrine sites to stake out territory and share information with others. A red panda can defend its territory by standing on its hind legs and using those sharp claws to strike out if threatened. If that doesn't work at keeping enemies at bay, it can release a strong odor from scent glands at the base of the tail.
Red pandas often communicate using body language (such as head bobbing and tail arching) and a variety of noises (such as a threatening huff-quack and a warning whistle).
Red pandas are most active at dawn and dusk.
Although bamboo shoots and leaves make up most of the red panda's diet it will also take fruits, insects, eggs, and small birds and rodents.
To cope with the lack of food during the winter months, red pandas have evolved several ways of meeting their energy demands. For instance, red pandas can spend as much as 13 hours a day looking for and eating bamboo. They also have a very low metabolic rate (almost as low as sloths), and can slow their metabolism even further in colder temperatures. Finally, their thick fur covers their entire body, including the soles of their feet, allowing them to conserve their body heat.
Breeding season runs from January through April, but red pandas "practice" delayed implantation so that cubs are born in the summer. After implantation, gestation takes about 135 days. Just a few days before giving birth, the expectant mother begins to build a birthing den in a hollow tree, stump, or rock crevice, lining it with twigs, leaves, grass, moss, and small branches.
The average litter consists of two cubs. The mother shelters her young in tree hollows and regularly moves them to new dens, carrying her offspring in her mouth. They begin chewing on bamboo twigs their mother brings to the den at about one month of age, but won't regularly eat solid food until they are about four months old. Cubs begin venturing from the den when about three months old, and by five months of age are almost as large as their mother. They mature in 18 to 20 months and are driven away by their mother at that time so she can get ready to raise her next litter. Males rarely help with raising the young.
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This page was last updated on May 12, 2017.