Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Red Pandas Are Actually Two Species, Study Finds

Animals
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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An elephant at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. In Defense of Animals

By Marilyn Kroplick

The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.

Read More Show Less
Isiais now approaches the Carolinas, and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane again before reaching them Monday night. NOAA

Florida was spared the worst of Isaias, the earliest "I" storm on record of the Atlantic hurricane season and the second hurricane of the 2020 season.

Read More Show Less
A campaign targeting SUV advertising is a project between the New Weather Institute and climate charity Possible. New Weather Institute

To meet its climate targets, the UK should ban advertisements for gas-guzzling SUVs, according to a report from a British think tank that wants to make SUVs the new smoking, as the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less

A company from Ghana is making bikes out of bamboo.

By Kate Whiting

Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.

Read More Show Less
Scientists say it will take a massive amount of collective action to reverse deforestation and save society from collapse. Big Cheese Photo / Getty Images Plus

Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.

Read More Show Less
Researchers have turned to hydrophones, instruments that use underwater microphones to gather data beyond the reach of any camera or satellite. Pxfuel

By Kristen Pope

Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The fact is, cats play different predatory roles in different natural and humanized landscapes. PIXNIO / CCO

By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila

A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.

Read More Show Less