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Red Pandas Are Actually Two Species, Study Finds

Animals
Red Pandas Are Actually Two Species, Study Finds
Mathias Appel / Flickr

Get ready for double the cuteness! Red pandas, the crimson-colored, bushy-tailed forest dwellers who gave Firefox its name, actually consist of two different species.


That's the result of the first study to seriously examine the genetic evidence, published in Science Advances Wednesday. In addition to expanding general knowledge of the natural world, the findings have important conservation implications for the endangered species.

"Being two different species means conservation action plans can be specific to the two different species needs and requirements," Moumita Chakraborty, a fellow at the Zoological Society of London conservation program EDGE, told BBC News. "Due to the fragmentation of their natural habitat, small numbers, and niche food requirements their number border on the brink of extinction."

Red pandas had previously been divided into two subspecies: the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani).

Himalayan red pandas live in Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet while Chinese red pandas live in China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, as well as in northern Myanmar and southeastern Tibet, researchers told Reuters.

They also look distinct.

"The Himalayan red panda has more white on the face, while the face coat colour of the Chinese red panda is redder with less white on it. The tail rings of the Chinese red panda are more distinct than those of the Himalayan red panda, with the dark rings being more dark red and the pale rings being more whitish," Chinese Academy of Sciences conservation biologist and lead study author Yibo Hu told Reuters.

Some scientists had thought previously they might be different species, but they did not have the genetic data to back up the hypothesis. Until now.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of 65 red pandas using DNA samples from red pandas in captivity or museum specimen, New Scientist reported. The magazine then explained what happened next:

Using data from 49 red pandas, the team compared their haplotypes, variations in DNA inherited from a single parent – for example, their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, and Y chromosomes, which are inherited from the father.

Compared to Chinese red pandas, the Himalayan red pandas had 50 per cent fewer mutations in the single letters, or bases, that make up DNA across their whole genomes. Hu's team also found that the haplotypes clustered together in different regions of the genomes of Himalayan and Chinese red pandas, and there were no shared Y chromosome variants between red pandas from the eastern Himalayas and those from Sichuan.

Hu said the findings were important because they would change how the species would be managed in captivity.

"To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity," he said, according to Reuters. "Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment."

However, Jon Slate of the University of Sheffield pointed out that the researchers had only sampled red pandas living in China's Qionglai mountains and Nepal and India, not in Bhutan and Northern India.

"Without having sampled pandas there, it's harder to really confidently say there are two distinct species here," Slate told New Scientist.

What is undisputed is that red pandas are at risk from human activity. There are around 10,000 total in the wild, according to Reuters. And they are threatened by habitat loss, interbreeding and poaching, BBC News reported. In southwest China, they are illegally hunted for their fur, as hats from their bushy tails are considered good luck for newlyweds.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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