May 15, 2010

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

What IS that? Is it a raccoon? Is is a bear? Is it a fox? Why is a fox up in a tree?

It may look like a raccoon in a red fox suit, but this little guy is actually a panda. Its giant black and white namesake may hog all the attention, but he's not the only bamboo chomper in the forest. This is the red panda...much smaller, but all panda nonetheless. In fact, it can be argued that this guy is the original panda, as it was first described in 1821...over 40 years before the giant panda was discovered. And he can give the giant panda a good run for its money in the adorable department, as well.

Both red and giant pandas live in the forests of Asia and both have a serious bamboo addiction, but aside from that are not actually that closely related. It seems they just have similar hobbies.

But while the giant panda is a bamboo purist, the red panda will sometimes supplement the oh-so-delectable bamboo with other foods, such as roots, fruit, eggs, and even a lizard or small bird on occasion. Meat on the dinner table is not that common, however, because if the critter can move at all fast, this guy ain't gonna catch it. He's not exactly what you would call a type "A" personality. Possibly due to the poor nutrient content in bamboo, red pandas have a very slow metabolism and spend most of the day up in the trees sleeping and chewing on that yummy (and slow moving) bamboo.

The red panda is very well adapted to life in the trees...his hind legs are longer than his front legs (great for climbing up things), he has long claws that help him grab tree branches, and he even has an "extra" thumb which is useful for holding on. It always helps to have an extra digit to hang on to the tree with. These adaptations make him a little less than graceful on the ground, however. And that's fine, because the red panda prefers to stay in the trees anyway; it's safer up there. Staying in the trees helps the red panda stay off the menu of the snow leopard, who finds panda tar-tar to be very tasty.

One of the most distinctive features of the red panda is his long, bushy tail. The long tail helps him keep his balance in the trees. The tail is not prehensile, however, so you will never see a red panda swinging from his tail like a monkey. For him to try something like that would be a Bad Idea, indeed.

One thing that tail is very good for, though, is warmth. In cold weather, the red panda will curl up and wrap that long bushy tail around his body to keep himself nice and cozy. And that's no small thing; a built-in wraparound blanket comes in handy during a himalayan winter. The red panda also has a thick fur coat to protect and insulate its entire body...even the soles of the feet!

He's cute, he has a gorgeous firey red fur coat, he has weird extra appendages on his hands, and he has furry feet. The red panda...what's not to love?

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