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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.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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