What are the different species of pandas?

Giant panda in a tree.

There are only two different species of pandas in the world, the giant pandas and the red pandas. Despite the common name, the two are not scientifically related to each other. They live in roughly the same geographic area and have a similar diet; both are also decreasing in terms of population numbers. The giant panda is actually a species of bear and is therefore known in some places as the “panda bear”. These animals can be quite large and have very distinctive colors: they are mostly white with large black spots around the eyes, on the ears and on other parts of the body. As the red panda’s name suggests, these creatures tend to take on a more rusty color and are considerably smaller. In most cases, they resemble house cats in size and agility, and tend to live in rockier, mountainous terrain.

animal basics

Red panda climbing on a branch.

Both animals are native to Central Asia, but their areas of distribution tend to be slightly different. The researchers believe that bears only exist in a few isolated bamboo forests in south-central China. Red versions also live in this part of China, but their habitat also branches westward into Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. The name “panda” is believed to come from the Nepalese word “ponya”, meaning “bamboo” – and in fact, bamboo is the main source of food for both creatures. This is one way of explaining the common name. In most other respects, animals are very different.

Giant panda facts

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Pandas eat bamboo.

The giant panda is scientifically known as Ailuropoda melanoleuca, and molecular studies have shown that it is a true bear and is part of the Ursidae family. It is widely considered to be one of the gentlest bears and is predominantly a herbivore, which may explain its general lack of aggression.

The average height of a giant panda is usually somewhere between 1.50 and 1.80 m tall (152.5-183 cm), approximately the height of an average human. They tend to weigh a lot more though, with bears regularly weighing over 200 pounds (about 91 kg). Bears are a very important part of Chinese culture and it is believed that pandas were once the most precious animal in the emperor’s exotic animal garden.

Pandas sometimes eat bananas.

Bears typically consume almost 80 pounds (36.4 kg) of bamboo a day, which places some limitation on their habitat. In short, they need to live where forests are rich and dense and where there is always a constant supply of food. They are also known to eat small rodents and other animals when food is scarce; honey, eggs, fish and fruits such as oranges and bananas are also sometimes eaten when they are available. Animals typically spend about 16 hours a day just eating. This type of panda has a paw consisting of a thumb and four fingers, and the thumb’s only essential function is to hold the bamboo while it feeds. Animals are also climbers and, despite their weight and size, can often reach great heights; the thumbs can also help in this effort, at least when it comes to grasping and pulling.

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Red Panda Differences

Both giant pandas and red panda bears can be found in China.

Red pandas carry the scientific name Ailurus fulgens and are not bears. They look like a mix of a cat and fox and are roughly the size of both animals, although many people think they have a certain bear-like appearance, at least on the face. Their average height is around 24 inches (61 cm) and at most they weigh around 13 pounds (5.9 kg). They typically have long, bushy tails that they use both for balance when climbing and swinging through trees and to keep warm while sleeping.

The red panda is also native to China, though it is also commonly found in Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of northern India. These animals are typically found on steeper slopes of the Himalayan Mountains rather than in the lowland bamboo groves that the bears prefer, and they tend to favor dense coniferous forests. Like the giant panda, the majority of the red panda’s diet consists of bamboo, although they’ll also eat berries, mushrooms, acorns, and a variety of grasses.

Threats to Habitat and Survival

Populations of both panda species are considered endangered, but to different degrees. Giant pandas are widely classified as “endongered,” and their population in the wild is widely estimated to be below 1,600. Many different zoos and nature preserves have spent tremendous time and money trying to help the species grow with the intention of boosting the populations that roam China freely, but the problem is a very complicated one. Habitat loss is a major piece of the puzzle.

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Red pandas are classified by wildlife groups as “vulnerable,” and their population numbers are estimated at around 10,000 in the wild. The main threats to their survival are human development and land use as well as trapping: the red panda is often trapped and killed in devices meant for other animals entirely. In some cases they are also hunted for their fur, which is sometimes coveted for clothing and accessories.

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