Red pandas are the original ‘panda’. They were discovered by zoologists over 40 years before the black and white giant panda bear.
Ever since their discovery, red pandas have baffled scientists with how to classify them. Their are about the size of a raccoon and with a bear like body so when they were first cataloged, red pandas were put into the raccoon family, and then later placed in the bear family.
They are not related to giant pandas but are thought to possibly be distantly related to raccoons, weasels or skunks. Red pandas are now classified as the only members of their own family – Ailuridae.
The red panda’s scientific name, Ailurus fulgens, means ‘fire-colored cat’. The red panda goes by many common names, including: lesser panda, red cat-bear, Himalayan raccoon, shining cat and fire fox.
Red panda are native to the high-altitude forests of the Himalayas. Arboreal in nature, they spend most of their time in the trees. They may be able to jump up to five feet. They use their long tail for balance. They have sharp, semi-retractable claws and flexible ankles that can rotate backwards, allowing them to climb down head-first.
Red pandas live in an often chilly climate so they are well suited for life in the cold.
Most of the red panda’s body is covered in dense fur – the soft, wooly undercoat is protected by long and course guard hairs. The soles of its feet are also covered in fur instead of pads like many mammals. The fur may help keep them from slipping on branches and aids in keeping them warm.
Red pandas have a red or orange face, black nose, white muzzle, whiskers and fuzzy white or yellowish, ears. They have facial markings similar to raccoons. Darker ‘tear tracks’ under the eyes (which may help keep the sun out of their eyes). White cheek patches on their face (which is “almost luminescent” and can guide a mother’s lost cubs in the darkness) and eyebrow-like markings.
Their tail, which may measure nearly 20 inches in length, is striped and often has a darker tip.
One may think the red panda’s rusty fur may stick out among its forest home, but it actually blends in with the moss and lichens that grow on trees and rocks in its habitat. The darker color of their belly makes them more difficult to see from the forest floor.
A little bigger than the average house cat, red pandas weigh around 6-14 pounds And measure 20-25 inches in length not including the tail.
They’re mainly crepuscular, meaning most active at dawn and dusk.
If it becomes too cold, red pandas may lower their metabolism and are far less active or almost dormant. Red pandas are often seen in cold weather curled up on branches using their furry tail as a pillow or as a scarf to cover their nose. In warmer weather red pandas can be seen stretched out on tree limbs with their legs dangling.
Red pandas, and their giant panda neighbors, have a ‘false thumb’ or a modified wrist bone that allows them to grip their favorite food – bamboo.
The name “panda” is believed to come from a Nepalese term meaning “bamboo eater”. Though red pandas are classified in the order Carnivora, about 95% of their diet consists of bamboo.
Their eating style differs from the other famous bamboo eater, the giant panda. While the black and white bears will bite off mouthfuls of leaves, red pandas usually eat bamboo one leaf at time.
They will select the most nutritious species of bamboo, eating 20-30 percent of they body weight and up to 20,000 bamboo leaves a day.
They will also eat berries and occasionally eggs, small birds, insects and other small animals.
Their digestive system is more like other carnivores than herbivores and only about 24% of plant matter eaten is digested, so they spend a lot of time sleeping to conserve energy.
The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is currently divided into two subspecies (though some argue they be treated A two distinct species):
The western red panda (A. f. fulgens) is native the Himalayas in Nepal, India and possibly southwestern Tibet. The Chinese (A. f. refulgens previously A. f. styani) red panda is native to parts of China, Burma and perhaps eastern Tibet and part of its range overlaps with the giant panda. The Chinese subspecies is also slightly larger and darker in color than its western counterpart.
In the wild they are solitary outside of breeding season, which, in the northern hemisphere, is January through March.
They mark their territory by using scent glands on their feet and anal glands as well as using urine and feces. They communicate with body language like head bobbing and tail arching and make sounds like whistles, snorts, squeals, twitters and huff-quacks, though they are usually quiet.
Gestation last 90-150 days. The female creates nest in a tree hole or hollow stump lined with soft plant material. Litters typically consists of two cubs. They are born with woolly, gray-brown fur and are blind.
They may stay with their mother until they’re 8 months to a year old and become fully mature at about one and a half years old. The average life expectancy is around 10 years in the wild but can live into their teens in human care.
Red pandas are considered endangered. Their global population has declined by 50% over the last 20 years and there may be as few as 2,500 individuals remaining in their native habitat. They are threatened by habitat loss, poaching and the pet trade.
Founded in 2007 by Brian Williams, the Red Panda Network and many participating zoos around the world help raise awareness and education of the many threats facing the red panda. The third Saturday of September every year is recognized as International Red Panda Day. Check your local zoo for events and ways you can support the world’s original panda.
Red Panda Network
Red Panda Network is the world’s first nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting red pandas.
Founded by Brian Williams in 2007, Red Panda Network has become a world leader in efforts to protect red pandas and their habitat.
Their work began in one of the most biologically-diverse areas in the world that is home to many unique and threatened species including clouded leopards, Asiatic black bears, and red pandas.
Today, the Red Panda Network works with local governments to adopt policies that protect red pandas and their habitats.
Red Panda Network’s community-based approach is creating sustainable livelihoods and fostering environmental stewardship among the people of Eastern Nepal.
While red pandas are growing in popularity, there are still many people around the world who remain unaware of this species or their endangered status.
It is imperative that while spreading the word about red pandas we emphasize conservation.
Many accredited zoos around the world support the Red Panda Networks global efforts and also promote International Red Panda Day by hosting many special presentations and activities.
We can all be red panda ambassadors, visit redpandanetwork.org to learn about more ways you can help save the red panda.
South Asian River Dolphins
Found among the rivers and waterways of India, stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south is a site not many would expect. There in those the rivers lives a dolphin, a river dolphin.
River dolphins are different than their more famous oceanic cousins, like the bottlenose dolphin and killer whale, which are members of the Delphinidae family. Each river dolphin species is classified in its own unique family.
There are four “true” river dolphins, that is, dolphins that live exclusively in freshwater. They are: the Ganges and Indus River dolphins, the Amazon River dolphin, or boto, and the Yangtze River dolphin, or Baiji, which is sadly believed to be extinct.
The south Asian river dolphin is the only living member of the Platanistidae family and is often split into two subspecies – the Ganges River dolphin and the Indus River dolphin. They are only found in the freshwater river systems of South Asia. The rivers they inhabit measure from less than 10 to nearly 30 feet deep.
The Ganges River dolphin, also known as the susu, is found in rivers of India, Bangladesh and Bhutan while the Indus River dolphin, also known as the bhulan, is now only found in the Indus River in Pakistan.
South Asian river dolphins are light grayish brown in color and sometimes have pinkish coloration around the mouth or belly. Their snout is long and thin with sharp teeth exposed especially near the tip. They have a round, stocky body, a slit on top of the head for a blowhole, large, broad pectoral flippers and flukes and a very small dorsal fin. Unlike most other cetaceans, river dolphins have a distinct neck.
They measure around 8 feet in length and weigh 150-200 pounds. Females are typically larger than males
The south Asian river dolphin is also known as the blind dolphin. Their eyes lack lenses and are essentially blind; they may only be able to detect light. However, since the rivers they live in are often murky, visibility would be poor anyway.
They navigate their habitat and find prey by using echolocation. They send out pulses of clicks and listen for the echoes as the sound bounces of objects, allowing it to “see” an image in its mind.
They often swim on their sides and use their flexible neck or trail a flipper along the river bed to stir up prey hiding on bottom. The river dolphins will use their long snout with a quick snapping action to grab their prey, similar to crocodiles.
Their unique side-swimming behavior also allows them to move in shallow water less than 12 inches/a foot deep. Of course, being mammals, they must breath air and dives usually only last about a minute.
South Asian river dolphins are the top predator of their ecosystem. They are fish eaters, or piscivores, and feed mainly on carp and catfish but may also take gobies and shrimp. They may eat only about 2 pounds of food a day.
The south Asian river dolphin is generally solitary but may sometimes be found in groups of 3-10 individuals.
Gestation can last for up to 12 months and calves are born about half the size of their mother. They are weaned no older than a year old or as young as 2 months.
These dolphins are elusive and shy around people, so studying them has been difficult. Their lifespan and longevity is not well known but may live 17 to 30 years.
The Ganges River dolphin is the National Aquatic Animal of India.
Sadly, the south Asian river dolphin is among the most endangered cetaceans in the world. They are threatened by habitat degradation, pollution and being hunted for their meat. They may become trapped in fishing nets and the construction of dams separates the dolphins from one another and their migration routes. There may only be around 2,000 Ganges dolphins and only about 1,800 Indus dolphins remaining.
By protecting the rivers the graceful and unique south Asian river dolphins live in, it helps the other amazing wildlife that share its habitat and the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rivers to live.
Asian elephants are native to various types of habitats including tropical forests, woodlands and both dry and swampy grasslands of southeast Asia. In addition to many areas of the southern Asian continent, they are also found on the Asian islands of Sri Lanka, Borneo and Sumatra.
There are currently three recognized subspecies of Asian elephants – Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan. Though the Borneo pygmy could be an additional subspecies.
Even though their scientific name – Elephas maximus – means “largest or greatest elephant” Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins but are Asia’s largest land animal. They weigh 6,000-11,000 pounds or more and measure 7-10 feet at the back.
Compared to African elephants, Asian elephants have smaller ears and a domed back. Their skin is gray or brown and sometimes have patches of pink, due to de-pigmentation, around forehead, trunk and ears.
Elephants are the only living members of the order Proboscidea. Asian elephants are the only members of the of the Elephas genus.
The name elephant comes from the Greek ‘elephas’, meaning ‘ivory’ – the substance that makes up an elephants tusk.
The elephants tusks are upper incisor teeth that grow throughout the animals life. Only males of the Asian elephants have large, visible tusks. They are used for many purposes such as digging for water, food, salt and minerals, debarking trees, manipulating objects and for defense. Females and some males have small tusks called “tushes” that rarely protrude past the lip.
The chewing surface of elephant molars have ridges that help grind plant matter. In Asian elephants, these ridges are long and circular. Elephants go through six sets of molars in their lifetime. Instead of being replaced vertically, elephants replace them horizontally where new teeth develop behind the old ones and progress forward.
Like people, elephants seem to be left- or right- “handed”, that is, they may have a preference as to which tusk they use.
An elephant’s most famous feature is their proboscis, better known as a trunk. The trunk is formed from the upper lip and nose and is estimated to contain more than 100,000 muscles and tendons. This iconic appendage does not have any bones and only has cartilage in the base of the trunk to separate the nostrils.
Asian elephants have a single prehensile finger-like projection on the tip of the trunk, while African elephants have two. These ‘fingers’ are sensitive and are able to pick up delicate objects.
The trunk is incredibly important to the elephant. It is used for breathing, smelling, drinking, feeding, manipulating objects, communication, sound production, defense and assisting calves.
Despite what you may have seen in cartoons, an elephant doesn’t use it’s trunk as a straw to drink water. Instead, it’ll suck up water into to the trunk and then pour it into its mouth. The trunk can can hold nearly 2 gallons of water. Elephants will drink up to nearly 50 gallons of water a day.
They may also spray water or fling dirt onto their back to help keep cool or to repel insects. The trunk can also pick up molecules and particles in the air, and by transferring them to the Jacobson’s organ, may be able to detect things like faraway water sources or the reproductive status of other elephants.
The trunk is so powerful it can knock down trees, but so gentle it can pick up just a single blade of grass. It can also be used as a snorkel for swimming in deep waters.
Elephants eat grasses, leaves, branches, bark and fruits. They use less than 50% of the food they eat. To compensate for this, they eat about 165-330 pounds of food and spend up to 16 hours feeding a day.
But, with a lot of food comes a lot of dung! An elephant may defecate as much as 20 times per day. The dung plays an important part in the elephants role in the ecosystem. It helps spread seeds and provides food for birds and insects.
Their skin ranges from almost paper-thin to 1.5 inches thick and is generally smoother on Asian elephants than their African counterparts. This thick skin has led elephants, and other thick-skinned animals, to be known as Pachyderms. However, despite its thickness, it’s very sensitive.
Elephants can even detect seismic vibrations in their feet and may have an advanced warning to natural disasters like tsunamis.
Asian elephants live in herds of around 8-12 individuals led by an older, more experienced female. The females usually stay with their herds for their whole life, while males leave once they reach puberty between the ages of 8 and 13. Young males may form loose bachelor herds and, as they age, they become more solitary.
Males go through a period of heightened testosterone, aggression and unpredictable behavior known as “musth”. During musth, bulls will compete against each other for mating opportunities.
Gestation lasts up to 22 months – the longest of any mammal. Females typically give birth to a single calf, though twins are not unheard of. Calves are born weighing between 150-300 pounds and are very hairy – hairier than baby African elephants. Calves are cared for by its mother and other females of the herd referred to as “aunties”.
Elephants are highly intelligent and have the largest brain of any land animal. The brain may weigh up to 12 pounds.
They communicate through different sounds including low frequency rumbles, nearly imperceptible to the human ear, to communicate over long distances. Elephants are also very tactile – they touch and caress each with their trunk.
They have complex social structures and even exhibit mourning behavior over deceased companions.
The average life expectancy of Asian elephants is around 50-60 years, though some have lived into their 80s in managed care.
There are more elephants in Africa than there are in Asia. Asian elephants are endangered due mainly to habitat loss, they may also be killed in human-elephant conflicts. They are threatened by poaching for their ivory and skin as well. Despite an international ban on Asian elephant ivory trade since 1975 and China’s closing of the legal ivory market in 2017, the greatest demand for ivory sales remains in the elephant’s home ranges of southeast Asia.
It is believed people have worked with Asian elephants for around 5,000 years, a familiar and popular site at many local zoos around the world -roughly a third of the world’s population of Asian elephants now lives under human care.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Animal Diversity Web
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo
Red Panda Network
San Diego Zoo Global
SeaWorld Animal Guide/Busch Gardens Tampa
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
World Wildlife Fund
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