Red PandaThe Red Panda or Lesser Panda, Ailurus fulgens ("shining cat"), is a mostly herbivorous mammal, specialized as a bamboo feeder. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat (40 - 60 cm long, 3 - 6 kg weight). The Red Panda is endemic to the Himalayas in Bhutan, southern China, India, Laos, Nepal, and Myanmar. Red Panda is the state animal in the Indian state of Sikkim. It is also the mascot of the Darjeeling international festivals. There is an estimated population of less than 2,500 mature individuals. Their population continues to decline due to habitat fragmentation.
Biology and behaviour
The Red Panda is quite long: 79-120 cm, or 31 to 47 in (including the tail length of 30 to 60 cm/12 to 24 in). Males weigh 4.5 to 6.2 kg (10 to 14 lb); females 3 to 4.5 kg (6 to 10 lb). The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder, with long and soft reddish-brown fur on upper parts, blackish fur on lower parts, light face with tear markings and robust cranial-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Its long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ocher rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss and lichen covered trees. The legs are black, short and bear-like with thick fur on the soles of the paws hiding scent glands and serving as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces. The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and s harp semi-retractile claws standing inward for firm grasping to facilitate substantial movement on narrow tree branches and seizing leaves and fruit. Like the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), it has a “false thumb” that really is an extension of the wrist bone.
Red Pandas are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and live in the slopes of the south of the Himalayas and the mountainous forests of the southwest of China, at altitudes of up to 4,800 meters, and generally do not venture below 1,800 meters. They are sedentary during the day resting in the branches of trees and in tree hollows and increase their activity only in the late afternoon and/or early evening hours. They are very heat sensitive with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 17 and 25°C., and cannot tolerate temperatures over 25 °C at all. As a result, Red Pandas sleep during the hot noontime in the shady crowns of treetops, often lying stretched out on forked branches or rolled up in tree caves with their tail covering their face.
Red Pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that live predominantly in trees. They live in territories, frequently as loners, and only rarely live in pairs or in groups of families. They are very quiet except for some twittering and whistling communication sounds. They search for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees with speed and agility and, after finding food, use their front paws to place the food into their mouths. Red pandas drink by plunging their paw into the water and licking there paws. Predators of Red Pandas are snow leopards (Uncia uncia), martens (Mustelidae) and humans. The species has also faced a great deal of human-induced habitat destruction.
Red Pandas begin their daily activity with a ritual washing of their fur by licking their front paws and massaging their back, stomach and sides. They also scrub their back and belly along the sides of trees or a rock. They then patrol their territory, marking it with a strong musk-smelling secretion from their anal gland and with their urine. If a Red Panda feels threatened or senses danger, it will often try to scamper up into an inaccessible rock column or a tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand up on their hind legs, which makes them appear somewhat more daunting and allows them the possibility of using the razor-sharp claws on their front paws, which can inflict substantial wounds. Red Pandas are friendly, but are not helpless, and will resist if they feel threatened.
DietThe Red Panda eats mostly bamboo. Like the Giant Panda, it cannot digest cellulose, so it must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Its diet consists of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat berries, fruit, mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen, grasses, and they are known to supplement their diet with young birds, eggs, small rodents, and insects on occasion. In captivity, however, they will readily eat meat. Red Pandas are excellent climbers and forage largely in trees. The Red Panda does little more than eat and sleep due to its low-calorie diet. Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and exhibited the highest digestibility in the summer and autumn, intermediate in the spring, and low in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. The Red Panda poorly processes bamboo, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies that microbial digestion plays only a minor role in its digestive strategy. The transit of bamboo through the red panda gut is very rapid (2–4 hours). In order to survive on this poor-quality diet, the Red Panda has to select high-quality sections of the bamboo plant such as the tender leaves and shoots in large quantities (over 1.5 kg of fresh leaves and 4 kg of fresh shoots daily) that pass through the digestive tract fairly rapidly so as to maximize nutrient intake (Wei et al., 1999).
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