September 15, 2017
A Tale of Two Pandas
- as seen by -Nora Beirne
What’s the difference between giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and red pandas (Ailurus fulgens)? Pretty much everything except their diet and habitat. But while the “lesser” panda might lack the recognition of its black and white counterpart, it was actually scientifically described nearly 50 years earlier and is no less extraordinary.
Like giant pandas, red pandas (above) mainly eat bamboo, occasionally snacking on nuts, fruits, and other assorted items. But, for an herbivore, these endearing little animals are notoriously ill-equipped to process vegetation. They cannot digest cellulose, a major component of leaves and shoots, which means they gain very little nutrients from their food. To compensate, wild red pandas spend over 10 hours a day grazing, and must consume close to 30% of their body weight daily.
Unlike ground-dwelling giant pandas, red pandas spend most of their time in trees. Semi-retractable claws as sharp as fishhooks allow them to cling to branches like Velcro. Their flexible ankles also rotate so they can descend trees face-first instead of needing to back their way to the ground. And while giant pandas are classified as bears, red pandas are the only living member of their taxonomic family – Ailuridae. How’s that for unique?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year, the third Saturday in September is International Red Panda Day, a time to learn more about these appealing mammals and how to conserve them. Visit the Central Park Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo to see red pandas, or check your local zoo.