August 13, 2006

The Mystery of the Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens

Photo by: Chief Trent

The Red Panda is definitely in the running for the most Pokémon-like animal in the history of the world. My internal Cute-O-Meter runs high every time I come across one in the zoo.

But the taxonomic category these little cuties occupy is perhaps one of the most disputed in classification. Most scientists place them with procyonids, the raccoon family. But some scientists are not satisfied. Red pandas exhibit many of the characteristics of bears (ursids) as well; reflected in one of their common names, the catbear (not to be confused with the binturong, known as the bearcat).

Kenneth Johnson has spent years studying these creatures, and has come to one conclusion, described in his paper, "Mystery of the Other Panda":

Classifying red pandas causes a furor among biologists: Are the animals bears or raccoons? Our research suggested that giant and red pandas should not be shoe-horned into either family but classified together in one of their own.

But a recent molecular analysis places the red panda into a broad grouping along with skunks, believe it or not, and other mustelids. Researchers compared homologous nucleotide sequences - just the type of molecular character we discussed earlier - and constructed several different cladograms.

The issue is far from settled; indeed, Johnson may be right in suggesting a separate grouping for the pandas because of their unusual characteristics.

The next post will discuss one of the most distinct - and famous - of these: The panda's thumb. How did it evolve, and why are pandas classified as carnivores if their diet consists almost entirely of bamboo?


Mystery of the Other Panda. In: International Wildlife. Vol.20, No.6. Nov/Dec 1990: 30-33.

Whence the Red Panda? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. Vol. 17, No. 2, November 2000, pp. 190-199


  1. Interesting! The little critter sure is awfully cute!

    I just looked at the web page for Campus Crusaders. ??? Their information looks very "slick" and unfortunately, many people believe anything that simply looks pretty. Do you have a chapter at your college? I'd like to see those DVDs, just to see what they're all about.

    I think we should start a college club called Darwin's Defenders and create some slick DVDs about the age of the earth and the evolution of life. ;-)

  2. Jen, that is not a bad idea at all. I think we may be coming to that point.

    Campus Crusaders does have a chapter at FSU, though they are never very open about it. But, I'll be keeping a wide eye out for them during the semester. I'm tempted to write a column about their thinly veiled objectives, specifically about spreading ID (not to mention saving the Catholics, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists - you know, the hellbound).

    I think I'm at least going to write a post about them on here. They seem to be disrupting academia in general, and no one really knows about it.

    So, without further ado: Darwin's Defenders, Activate!


  3. This is all interesting, but can he defeat Zangoose?

  4. "The Red Panda is definitely in the running for the most Pokémon-like animal in the history of the world."

    I think this critter is the winnner.

  5. Cute Panda. Had no idea there were red ones.
    Here from Blog Village Carnival.

  6. I didn't know these things existed until a few weeks ago when I saw a film of a Japanese family's pet red panda.

    It was incredibly curious and mischievous.

    Very interesting post.

    (I'm here from the Blog Village Goes Gonzo Carnival.)

  7. How adorable! I didn't know red pandas existed either!! I followed your link from the BLOG VILLAGE Goes Gonzo Carnival!!!

    I love the term "Cute-O-Meter".

  8. Great post. I'm from England and have never seen a red panda before. I found your blog from the Blog Village Carnival