Red Pandas Are Two Separate Species, Study Finds

The red panda may be two distinct species, according to research published in Science Advances. By examining the red panda's entire genome, scientists have been able to shed light on the animal's tricky family history.

A team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed DNA from 65 red pandas from seven separate populations and determined two phylogenetic species that separated some time around 22 million years ago. One, Himalayan red pandas (Ailurus fulgens fulgens), can be found in southern Tibet and Nepal. Another, Chinese red pandas (Ailurus fulgens styani), can be found in southeastern Tibet and northern Myanmar.

Aside from location, the team says they differ in terms of appearance, with Chinese red pandas having a redder face and more distinct rings around their tail.

"Since 1902 the red panda has been classified as two subspecies," Professor Yibo Hu, who co-authored the paper, told Newsweek.

"However, the subspecies or species classification has remained controversial for a long time because of the geographical inconsistency in morphological characteristics similarity for traditional subspecies or species classification."

According to Hu, whole-genome sequencing, as performed in this study, is the most comprehensive for assessing genetic differences. It enabled them to identify different trajectories within the two species' evolution—in particular, periods of population expansion and population bottlenecks. The latter describes a period when there is a sharp reduction in population size.

Himalayan red pandas experiencing three bottlenecks and a small expansion, meaning it has lower genetic variety. While the Chinese red pandas experiencing two population bottlenecks and one large population expansion, meaning it has higher genetic variety.

The team says their findings suggest the Yalu Zanbu river forms a geographical boundary that divides the two species—though, they added, more research is needed to confirm whether or not this is the case.

Through expanding our understanding of the species (plural), Hu and others hope the knowledge will boost conservation efforts by enabling people working in the field to tailor their methods according to the species and avoid any missteps. For example, knowing that there are two species could prevent interbreeding between species in captivity.

"Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment," said Hu. "This finding will help construct clear red panda pedigree in captivity."

Red Panda. Zoom Torino
Scientists say Ailurus fulgens fulgens and Ailurus fulgens styani are two separate species. A Red Panda is pictured at the "Zoom Torino" a zoological park in Cumiana near Turin, on June 3, 2015. MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty

Red pandas once roamed vast swathes of Eurasia but their range has drastically shrunk, covering areas in the southern and southeastern edges of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau Populations. Their numbers have plummeted and they are listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered.

"The red panda is currently listed as number 22 on Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) EDGE of Existence list—meaning they are one of the most evolutionary distinct and globally endangered mammals in the world," Moumita Chakraborty, National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow, told Newsweek. "This taxonomic change will certainly mean improvements to species-specific conservation efforts."

"Being two different species means conservation action plans can be specific to the two different species needs and requirements," she added. "Albeit, both are equally important as are categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List—and numbers are decreasing every day."

According to Hu, the Himalayan red panda needs greater and more urgent protection because it has lower genetic diversity and a smaller population size.

Red panda Berlin's Tierpark zoo
Two Red Pandas climb trees in their enclosure in Berlin's Tierpark zoo on November 22, 2018 JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty

The pandas have already faced various instances of misidentification. Initially they were considered relatives of the raccoon (in the Procyonidae family) due to certain physical similarities, like their ringed tail.

According to Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, they were later reclassified as bears but have since been placed in their own separate family. Despite their name and diet, the bamboo-munchers are not related to the giant panda.