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article imageFive fascinating facts that you may not know about the red panda

By Megan Hamilton     Jul 26, 2015 in Environment
Scampering around in the trees from Nepal to northern Myanmar is an animal that is so cute, it looks like a creature from a child's dream. Perhaps it is, but it's also actually real.
Red pandas can also be found in the mountains of southwestern China.
Living in the temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalayas, red pandas don't have to deal with hot weather. Here, it is generally cool, with little temperature variation year-round, The Red Panda Network reports. Supported by seasonal monsoons, forests of firs, deciduous hardwoods and rhododendrons thrive, as does the red panda's favorite food — bamboo — in the forest understory.
This enigmatic creature has managed to confuse scientists over the years, first being considered a relative of the giant panda, then it was classified as a relative of the raccoon. Now, however, red pandas have been placed in their own unique family — the Ailuridae, according to National Geographic.
Seriously  who could resist this face?
Seriously, who could resist this face?
YouTube screen grab Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
There are actually two subspecies of red panda, The Red Panda Network reports:
Ailurus fulgens fulgens, which lives in Nepal, northeastern India (including West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), Bhutan, and part of China.
Ailurus fulgens styani, which is only found in the Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan, China, and the East Nujiang River of Yunnan Province, and in Northern Myanmar.
These beautiful creatures have a head and body length of about 56 to 63 cm (22 to 25 inches), and their tails are about 37 to 47cm (15 to 19 inches) long.
So what are some other fascinating facts about red pandas?
1. They are herbivorous carnivores. What the heck does that mean? Red pandas are carnivorans, an order of the Mammalia that includes lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my.
However, unlike most carnivorans, red pandas are mostly herbivores, and this is where these little fellows are more like giant pandas. A red panda's diet consists almost entirely of bamboo leaves and shoots, when they are in season, Scientific American reports. Unlike like the giant panda, however, they do like to eat fruit, flowers, and very rarely, the occasional bird or egg.
2. Despite their colorful fur, they are excellent at blending in. You might think that brightly-colored fur isn't good camouflage, but the fir trees in which they live sport a reddish-brown moss, which gives them a perfect opportunity to blend right in by disappearing into the branches. There are snow leopards in the regions where they live, so this ability to hide is pretty important, Scientific American reports.
3. The red panda's specialized diet actually has a pretty big impact on their daily life. Bamboo is quite high in indigestible fiber, and this makes it a challenge for them to extract the nutrients they need, The Red Panda Network notes. Cows, horses, and other mammalian herbivores have strong teeth and extra fermentation chambers in their guts. Red pandas do have large teeth, but their guts aren't specialized for handling plant matter. Amazingly, they only extract about one-quarter of the nutrients they need from bamboo, and food passes through their digestive tract very quickly. So, during the winter, these fuzzy creatures lose up to 15 percent of their body weight, because their other preferred foods aren't readily available.
To cope with the shortage of food during the winter, red pandas have evolved several strategies for meeting their energy demands. They can spend up to 13 hours each day searching for bamboo. Also, their metabolic rate is very low, (almost as low as a sloth's), and they can slow their metabolism down further in colder temperatures. Then there's that thick coat of fur that covers their entire body, even the soles of their feet, thus allowing them to conserve crucial body heat.
4. The gestation period for red pandas is quite long (about 135 days) when you consider that they only weigh about 11 pounds at maturity. They have small litters, and generally only produce about two cubs. Even though these adorable creatures eat a prodigious amount of food, they grow very slowly, reaching adult size when they are around 12 months old. They become sexually mature at 18 months, The Red Panda Network reports. Because of these characteristics, red pandas reproduce rather slowly and have a lot of difficulty recovering from population declines.
Which means:
5. They are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. That's right, their populations are in trouble, and it's partly because of cheese.
What?
Once again, like seemingly every other animal in the world, red pandas are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, even though legislation in the countries where they live protects them, Scientific American reports. Due to habitat loss, wild populations of these cuties are becoming increasingly fragmented. One place that hosts a population of about 40 red panda's is in Nepal's Langtang National Park, within the Himalayas. Even in the national park, these pandas are fragmented into four groups.
Here's where the cheese comes in:
In Langtang, there are two cheese factories that produce a combined 14,000 kilograms (or 30,864lbs.) of cheese every year to be sold in Kathmandu, which is nearby. To make this much cheese requires 140,000 liters (36,984 gallons) of milk, and farmers keep herds of chauri, which are allowed to graze in the park. Competing over food with these cattle, combined with other dangers including the herders and their dogs means that many of these beautiful creatures have been killed. Two researchers, writing in the journal Conservation Biology, suggested that "This problem might be solved 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."
It's not really known how large Asia's red panda population is, but fortunately zoos around the world are stepping up to the plate and are helping to preserve the species, The Red Panda Network reports. At least 80 zoos currently have red pandas and nearly all of them are participating in a management program to ensure that a viable zoo population survives. In North America, the management program for the red panda population is called the Red Panda Species Survival Program (SSP). The SSP keeps a studbook of all red pandas on the continent and determines which animals should mate. Then long-term research and management strategies are decided on. Other management programs are being conducted in Japan, Europe, Australia, and China. Check this out if you'd like to see one of these engaging creatures.
Hopefully, the future will be bright for these adorable red pandas. Then we can watch them do more of this:
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