The red panda (Ailurus fulgens, or shining-cat), is a small arboreal mammal native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. It is the only extant species of the genus Ailurus. Slightly larger than a domestic cat, it has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs.
Although the red panda is sometimes called the lesser panda, it is actually the original panda. Westerners discovered it in 1825, nearly 50 years before the giant panda.
Red pandas spend most of their waking hours foraging for bamboo, but they do not eat just any part of the bamboo plant. These specialists will only consume the leaves and tender shoots. Like the giant pandas, red pandas have a “second thumb” that is actually a wrist bone to help grab onto bamboo.
[Red pandas] are active mainly at night and spend their days sleeping in trees, out of the reach of most predators. Red pandas are primarily vegetarians, with bamboo shoots a favorite food, but they also eat small animals.
The red panda is a cousin of the raccoon, while the more famous giant panda is more closely related to bears. These engaging animals make their home in mountain forests and bamboo thickets, where they live in small groups or alone.
Unlike the Giant Pandas, they are not a bear. Instead, they are their own independent family called Alivridae. Many think they are related to the raccoon or family of Procyonidae, but this is based on superficial similarities and is incorrect.
Like the Giant Panda, [the Red Panda] 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, fish, eggs, small rodents, and insects on occasion. In captivity they will readily eat meat
The red panda is found in a mountainous band from Nepal through northeastern India and Bhutan and into China, Laos and northern Myanmar. It is rare and continues to decline, and it has already become extinct in 4 of the 7 Chinese provinces in which it was previously found. The major threats to red pandas are loss and fragmentation of habitat due to deforestation (and the resulting loss of bamboo) for timber, fuel and agricultural land; poaching for the pet and fur trades; and competition from domestic livestock.
The red panda is a good tree climber and spends most of its time in trees (87% of sightings of red pandas in one study) when it is not foraging. It uses trees not only for feeding but also to escape ground-based predators, and to sunbathe high in the canopy during winter.
The evolutionary history of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) plays a pivotal role in the higher-level phylogeny of the “bear-like” arctoid carnivoran mammals. Characters from morphology and molecules have provided inconsistent evidence for placement of the red panda. Whereas it certainly is an arctoid, there has been major controversy about whether it should be placed with the bears (ursids), ursids plus pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walrus), raccoons (procyonids), musteloids (raccoons plus weasels, skunks, otters, and badgers [mustelids]), or as a monotypic lineage of uncertain phylogenetic affinities.
Combined phylogenetic analyses reject the hypotheses that the red panda is most closely related to the bears (ursids) or to the raccoons (procyonids). Rather, evidence from nucleotide sequences strongly support placement of the red panda within a broad Musteloidea (sensu lato) clade, including three major lineages (the red panda, the skunks [mephitids], and a clearly monophyletic clade of procyonids plus mustelids [sensu stricto, excluding skunks]).