Most people are familiar with red pandas. These fluffy russet furballs are popular at zoos, where their climbing antics entertain kids and adults alike. They’re also popular in YouTube videos, where they get into all kinds of mischief. But how do these appealing creatures live in their natural habitat?
Red pandas are native to the high-altitude forests of the Eastern Himalayas in parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Myanmar. They may live at 7,000 to 13,000 feet of elevation. Their habitat is cold and mountainous, so they have a thick undercoat beneath their rusty-colored fur. They also have a long, bushy tail to cover their faces on cold nights, as well as fur padding on the bottoms of their feet.
Red pandas are arboreal and well adapted to tree life. Their ankles are flexible, making tree climbing easy, and they can even go headfirst down tree trunks. Their coloring helps them remain camouflaged against reddish moss on the trees. Red pandas rely on the trees to keep them safe from predators such as snow leopards and dholes, a kind of wild dog. In the winter, these agile climbers enjoy scampering up and sunbathing in the treetops.
Most of the red panda’s diet consists of bamboo. They’re somewhat picky eaters. They like to eat the young shoots in the spring, and the rest of the year, they eat the leaf tips, tossing away the rest of the plant. But bamboo is not very nutritious; in fact, red pandas can only digest about 24% of it. So they have to supplement their diet with plants, fruit, insects, nuts, eggs, and sometimes small birds or rodents. For this reason, they’re considered carnivores, even though they eat much more bamboo than meat.
You might wonder why bamboo is a preferred food source since it’s not nutritious or very digestible. The reason is that it’s plentiful and always readily available, and not many other animals want it. Red pandas need to eat 2 to 4 pounds of their body weight every day, which is a lot for a 12-pound animal. They often spend half their time foraging for bamboo. They have large molars and strong jaw muscles for chewing it and getting it down.
Red pandas breed in the winter, and, although they’re usually solitary, during mating time they come together for a panda family reunion. Cubs and adults may all play and wrestle together. Males and females also may mate with several partners. The gestation period is about 130 days, and the young are born blind, although they have all their fur. They stay in the nest for 90 days and are fully grown at 12 months. At 18 months old, they’re ready to become parents themselves.
Many people wonder, why are both the giant panda and the red panda called pandas? Which one is the real panda? Well, both, although the two are not related. The giant pandas are bears, while the red pandas belong to their own group or family called Ailurdae. The red panda is the only living member of this group; however, red pandas are considered distant relatives of raccoons. The name “panda” is thought to come from Nepalese and means “bamboo eater.”
So the next time you’re at the zoo enjoying these cute creatures, you can reflect that they’re also masters of the wildlife.