Red pandas are actually 2 separate species

March 2, 2020, 8:27 a.m.
red panda on a branch
Photo: Kjersti Joergensen/Shutterstock

Quite possibly the cutest animal in the world is actually two different species, researchers have discovered.

The bushy-tailed red panda that lives in the high forests of Asia is already endangered, and this new discovery may make conservation efforts even more important.

Two distinct species had been speculated for some time due to physical differences, but until now, no DNA evidence existed. With this comprehensive genetic study, researchers have differentiated between Chinese red pandas and Himalayan red pandas.

"The Himalayan red panda has more white on the face, while the face coat color of the Chinese red panda is redder with less white on it. The tail rings of the Chinese red panda are more distinct than those of the Himalayan red panda, with the dark rings being more dark red and the pale rings being more whitish," study co-author and Chinese Academy of Sciences conservation biologist Yibo Hu told Reuters. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

Chinese red panda and Himalayan red panda The Chinese (left) and Himalayan (right) red pandas have slightly different coloration and head shape. (Photo: Yunfang Xiu /Arjun Thapa)

Hu said the Himalayan red panda needs more urgent protection because of its lower genetic diversity and smaller population size.

"To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity and construct clear captive pedigrees," he said. "Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment."

Chinese red pandas are found in northern Myanmar, as well as southeastern Tibet and the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China. Himalayan red pandas are found in Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet in China, the researchers said. The Yalu Zangbu River is believed to be the geographical boundary separating the two species. Earlier, researchers believed it was likely the Nujiang River.

The endangered red panda

For the study, researchers analyzed the DNA of 65 wild red pandas from across Asia. The genetic analysis uncovered two distinct species that diverged about 250,000 years ago.

The findings are evidence that they are two distinct species rather than variations of one species, Mike Jordan, director of plants and animals at the Chester Zoo in the U.K. told the BBC. The zoo has a pair of red pandas.

"The population is down to what may only be a few thousand," he said. "Now that we need to divide that few thousand between two different species it may increase the conservation imperative and I suspect one or more of the species we will discover is even more threatened than we thought previously."

And conservation is key for these well-loved but vanishing mammals. Considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are only an estimated 10,000 adult pandas in the wild and those numbers are believed to be decreasing.

Red panda facts

Just a little larger than a domestic cat, red pandas are known for their thick, ruddy coats and bear-like looks. Their faces are white and they have reddish-brown marks from the corners of their eyes to their mouths. These may have evolved to help keep the sun out of their eyes, reports Smithsonian's National Zoo.

(The National Zoo has been one of the leaders in red panda conservation, with more than 100 surviving cubs born since 1962, including Henry and Tink in the video above.)

Red pandas have thick, bushy tails that they use for balance and they wrap around themselves for warmth in winter. Their unusual fur helps them blend into the canopy of fir trees where branches are covered with reddish-brown clumps of moss and white lichens.

These agile, acrobatic animals stay primarily in the treetops, according to WWF. They use trees for shelter and to escape predators. Despite their name, they aren't closely related to the giant panda except maybe for their dietary preferences. About 98% of the red panda's diet is bamboo.

Because of their unique habitat and feeding needs, survival has been difficult for red pandas. In addition to habitat loss, they've faced threats from human interference and poaching, even though they are protected in all the countries in which they live.

Researchers say their new findings are key for conservation efforts.

Until now, because there was no genetic evidence that the two species were distinct this has led to "directly impairing scientific conservation management," they write.

"The delimitation of two red panda species has crucial implications for their conservation, and effective species-specific conservation plans could be formulated to protect the declining red panda populations."