The lesser pandas (Ailurus), also called red pandas or cat bears, are a mammalian genus native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China that feeds primarily on bamboo. Originally, only one species, Ailurus fulgens, was assigned to the genus Ailurus. However, molecular genetic studies from 2020 show that the subspecies Styan’s lesser panda, previously classified as such, should be granted species status (now Ailurus styani) and the genus thus comprises two species. The genus is not closely related to the Giant Panda – contrary to interim assumptions in this direction.
Since 2008, lesser pandas have been listed as “vulnerable” on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species. According to estimates, less than 10,000 adult specimens live in the wild.
Lesser pandas are about 120 cm long, of which the tail accounts for about 55 to 60 cm. Their stick measurement is 28 cm. Males reach a weight of about 4.5 to 6 kg, females about 4 to 4.5 kg. They live an average of 8 to 10 years in captivity, and in exceptional cases 14 to 16 years. Individuals of both sexes still reproduce at 12 years of age.
In shape they resemble a raccoon, but are more slender. Their fur is long and soft, reddish brown to coppery red on top, sometimes with a tinge of yellowish, and shiny black underneath. The face can be individually colored – it is mainly reddish-brown with white tear streaks, the muzzle is short and the nose leather is naked and pitch black. The head is roundish, the ears are medium sized, erect and taper to a point, the eyes are very dark. The tail is bushy, six times each alternately yellowish red and ocher washed out ringed, but is not suitable for grasping. They use it to keep their balance in the branches, on the ground it is carried stretched out horizontally. The black legs are short and bear-like. Lesser pandas are sole walkers. Since the strong paws stand conspicuously inward, locomotion on narrow branches is made much easier for them. The white, dense hair on the soles provides excellent adhesion, especially on damp branches. It also serves as thermal insulation on snowy or icy surfaces. The toes are provided with curved, sharp, partly retractable claws. Like giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), they also have an elongated wrist bone that functions as a thumb and allows them to grasp fruit. Since the trees they roost on are mostly covered with moss mats and lichens, the reddish coloration of the lesser pandas helps them to be exquisitely camouflaged.
Lesser pandas rarely make sounds. To communicate, they chirp, squeak or whistle.
The dentition is exceptionally strong compared to that of small bears.
- Tooth formula: I 3/3, C 1/1, P 3/3-4, M 2/2 = 36-38.
Distribution and habitat
Lesser pandas occur in Nepal, in Bhutan and India (Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim), in northern Myanmar, in southern China (especially in the Hengduan Mountains) and in southeastern Tibet (Mêdog and Zayü counties). They inhabit the slopes of the Himalayas at altitudes ranging from 1500 to 4000 meters. The southern limit of their distribution is in western Yunnan, and the eastern limit is in western Sichuan. They are native to mixed forests with dense undergrowth of bamboo thickets. The western limit of their distribution is in Rara National Park in Nepal.
Distribution and species
There are two recent species:
- Western Lesser Panda or Himalayan Cat Bear (Ailurus fulgens Cuvier, 1825) – lives in the west of the range: in Nepal, Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan.
- Styan’s lesser panda or Chinese cat bear (Ailurus styani Thomas, 1902) – lives in the northeast of the range: in southern China and northern Myanmar.
The latter was described by Oldfield Thomas in 1902 as a subspecies of Ailurus fulgens based on a skull that came from Sichuan. Pocock distinguished styani from fulgens by the longer hairs in the winter coat, the darker fur, the larger head, the more arched forehead, and the stronger teeth. His description was based on skulls and pelts collected in Sichuan near the border with Yunnan and in northern Myanmar.
In late February 2020, a group of Chinese scientists advocated giving Ailurus f. styani the status of a distinct species. The two species were isolated from each other about 220,000 years ago as a result of glaciations during the penultimate cold period (the Saalian period in Europe) and can be distinguished genetically as well as morphologically and in their coloration. The western lesser panda has a whitish face with a reddish tinge and only indistinct ringing of the tail. Styan’s lesser panda, on the other hand, has a reddish face with clearly demarcated white spots and the tail ringing is more pronounced.
There are also reports of a population of red pandas in the mountains of the Indian state of Meghalaya at 700 m to 1400 m elevation. The climate there is tropical, and it is known that the red pandas of the Himalayas and southern China do not do well in tropical climates. Therefore, it is possible that this is another subspecies or species of red pandas.
Way of life
Lesser pandas are very skillful and acrobatic climbers. While they go in search of food in the evening and at night, they usually sleep stretched out in tree branches during the day. In tree hollows they curl up and protectively put their tails in front of their faces. They are very sensitive to heat, temperatures above 25°C can be very hard on them. This is one reason why they spend the whole day sleeping high up in shady treetops or tree hollows.
At dusk, they start their activity phase with a grooming ritual, as it is known from cats. Thereby the fur is “washed” very meticulously with the front paws licked off again and again. They scrub their backs and bellies on trees or rocks. They walk their territory just as often on the ground as on the trees. In doing so, they mark it with a secretion from the anal glands that smells strongly of musk and with urine.
Lesser pandas are peace-loving creatures, but they can defend themselves when threatened. They flee as soon as they feel threatened. However, if they can no longer avoid the attacker, they stand on their hind legs. On the one hand, this makes them appear more imposing, but on the other hand, it opens up the possibility for them to deal out paw blows with their front paws. With their sharp claws they can inflict considerable wounds on their opponent. Because it cleans itself like a cat by licking its entire body, it is also called a cat bear.
The lesser panda is primarily a herbivore. The main food source is bamboo shoots. However, since bamboo is very poor in nutrients and the lesser panda’s digestive system is not ideally equipped for it, it must consume large amounts of it to meet its nutritional needs. In addition, it feeds on roots, grasses, fruits, berries, seeds and nuts. Less frequently, it preys on insects, small rodents, young birds and eggs. In search of food, it walks over the ground and through the undergrowth at night, moving very nimbly and agilely. The food is brought to the muzzle with the front paws and chewed very well. For drinking, the lesser panda has developed a special technique: It dips its paw into the water and licks it afterwards.
Breeding and development
Lesser pandas tend to be solitary animals that only come together with other conspecifics for mating – usually from late December to mid-February. Only very rarely do they live in pairs or in small packs. When the female is ready, she lets herself be mounted on the ground. Here the male holds the female with a neck bite. The gestation period lasts about 120 to 140 days. It is noticeable on the female’s body that they are pregnant. About six weeks before the litter, they become downright lethargic.
A few days before the litter, the female begins to gather nesting material, including brushwood, grass, and leaves. The nest is usually built in a hollow tree or a crevice. The litter occurs in late May to early July, always between 4:00 and 9:00 p.m. local time, which is their activity period. About one to four pups are born, which are weakly haired and still blind. After whelping, they are immediately cleaned – the dam memorizes the exact scent for recognition. After a week, the mother leaves the nest, but often returns to nurse the offspring, clean and clean the nest. The pups do not open their eyes until they are 18 days old at the earliest, but usually not until they are 30 to 40 days old. At first the eyes are still gray, only at about six weeks they slowly take on their dark coloration, at about ten weeks they are then fully colored. The offspring remain attached to the nest for about twelve weeks. At five months, they try solid food for the first time. In order to provide enough milk, the mother must eat three times her normal amount of food. With the onset of the next mating season, the cubs are driven away from the mother.
Lesser pandas do not become sexually mature until about 18 months of age at the earliest. Males very rarely help raise the offspring, only when they are in pairs or a pack.
The lesser panda was first scientifically described in 1825 by the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier and assigned to the lesser bears (Procyonidae). The family Ailuridae was introduced in 1843 by the British zoologist John Edward Gray.
Prior to the first description of the giant panda in 1869, the species was referred to only as the panda (or cat bear).
In 1902, British zoologist Oldfield Thomas described Ailurus fulgens styani, a subspecies of the Sichuan lesser panda. The nominate form, for which Nepal was given as terra typica, thus became the subspecies Ailurus fulgens fulgens. In February 2020, a group of Chinese scientists advocated giving both the nominate form – i.e., the western lesser panda – and Styan’s lesser panda the status of independent species. The two species were isolated from each other about 220,000 years ago as a result of glaciations during the penultimate cold period (the Saalian period in Europe) and can be distinguished genetically as well as morphologically and in their coloration. The border between the distribution areas of both species could be the mountain river Saluen.
The systematic classification of the lesser pandas was problematic for a long time; they were taxonomically recategorized again and again. That they belong in a carnivore family at all has been a recurring controversy since Frédéric Cuvier first described them in 1825. At first, they were placed in the small bear family because of similarities in skull, dentition, color-curled tail, and other morphological characteristics. Recent molecular systematics and morphological research are the basis for placing lesser pandas in their own family, the Ailuridae, which is at the base of the marten relatives (Musteloidea).
Ailurus is the only recent representative of the family Ailuridae, which was originally widespread in all continents of the northern hemisphere and reached its greatest diversity in Europe. Parailurus, the extinct form that most resembles present-day red pandas in cranial and dental morphology, occurred in the lower Pliocene in Europe, North America, and Asia, but was about 50% larger. Pristinailurus was more primitive and lived in the late Miocene and early Pliocene (Zancleum) in North America. Fossils of the genus have been found in the southern Appalachians. Simocyon exhibited a mixture of primitive and derived features and lived in the late Miocene (Turolian and Vallesian) in Europe, North America, and China. The puma-sized Simocyon batalleri from Spain was found to have a false thumb, indicating an arboreal (tree-dwelling) lifestyle. Even older, dating from the middle Miocene, are Actiocyon from Nevada and Magerictis from Spain, and the oldest genus now assigned to the Ailuridae is Amphictis from the late Oligocene of Europe.
Lesser pandas are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression. The contribution of each factor to endangerment varies by region. In India, habitat loss, followed by poaching, poses the greatest threat to giant pandas, while poaching and hunting of the animals top the list in China and Myanmar. In addition to direct poaching, they are also repeatedly caught in traps set to hunt wild boar, deer, goat-like game and monkeys. In the Chinese range, the animals’ fur is traditionally worn by the groom at weddings; it is also used for other local cultural ceremonies. The tail is used to make hats, paintbrushes, and feather dusters.
The IUCN classifies lesser pandas as critically endangered and in 2008 estimated the world population at less than 10,000 individuals, with a declining trend. In the longer term, deforestation and the resulting fragmentation of habitat is the greatest threat to the long-term survival of the species. It is safe to assume that lesser pandas cannot tolerate crucial habitat changes simply because of the small number of offspring and their food specialization.
The natural enemies of the lesser panda include leopards and martens.
Ailurus fulgens is listed in Appendix I of the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The World Zoo Association WAZA maintains a studbook for the lesser panda. Studbook coordinator is Martin van Wees at the Diergaarde Blijdorp, Rotterdam Zoo. Breeding succeeds in over 30 scientifically managed zoological gardens.
The lesser panda is the state animal of the Indian state of Sikkim. He represents the mascot of the International Tea Festival in Darjeeling.
In the context of the success of the Mozilla Firefox web browser, the assumption has spread that the lesser panda is called a fire fox in China and is thus the browser’s namesake. The word 火狐 huǒhú, German ‘Feuerfuchs’, refers to the Firefox web browser. Generally, the lesser panda is called 小熊貓 xiǎoxióngmāo, German ‘Little Panda’ (literally ‘Little Bear-Cat’) in Mandarin Chinese.
French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier, author of the first description, called the lesser panda “the most beautiful mammal on earth.”