They sit there, mostly curled up, mostly asleep, high up in tree-tops, sometimes chewing on bits of plants. But little known is that, deep within their furry little heads, they harbour an unknown desire: to take over the world…
Pet peeve # 113 concerns pandas: it’s the generally held notion that ‘the panda’ is a big, bear-shaped black and white animal. In fact the Giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca is not the original panda: the Red panda is ‘the panda’, its name being derived (according to some) from the word ‘poonya’ (others doubt this: the names ‘nigayla-ponya’ or ‘nyala-ponga’ are often mentioned in association with the Red panda and are said to mean ‘eater of bamboo’). The Giant panda is an imposter, made known to science 48 years later than was the Red panda, and that’s why it’s called the Giant panda (some people have argued that the best name for it is the Chinese colloquial word Beishung, but it’s too late for this to catch on now). Apparently, the Red panda is also known as the Wah (or Wha) on account of one of the noises it makes. I think I’ll have to start using this name. Other names include ho-hu and hun-ho, meaning ‘fire-fox’, bear cat, ye, thokya, woker, sankam, wokdonka (!) and of course Lesser panda.
I like visiting (good) zoos and looking at animals (insert argument here about importance of zoos to wildlife conservation), but it can be such a painful experience. Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage, so you have to endure all manner of unbelievable dumbassedness. Red pandas are a constant source of frustration. Toni is particularly fond of them, so we’ve spent long periods peering upwards with the lazy animals overhead, in the branches. Common responses from other visitors are that ‘That’s not a panda, pandas are black and white’ and ‘What is it? It’s a monkey’. After all, it’s furry and is in a tree, so it must be a monkey [adjacent image shows a Red panda standing erect. I only include it because it looks freaky].
Red pandas were first made known to science after the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich obtained a Red panda pelt and passed it to Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, who then showed the skin at an 1821 meeting of the Linnaean Society (Laidler & Laidler 1992). Hardwicke did plan to describe and name the animal (he eventually published his thoughts on it in 1827), but he was beaten to it: a second specimen, which had been given to Frédéric Cuvier by his son-in-law Alfred Du Vaucel, resulted in the 1825 formal naming by Cuvier of this species as Ailurus fulgens. British workers like Brian Hodgson remarked later how rude Cuvier had been in preventing ‘England’s reaping the zoological harvest of her own domains’ (Hodgson 1847). Chinese literature going back to the 13th century describes the Red panda. The Giant panda, incidentally, wasn’t recognized by science until 1869 although, like the Red panda, it had been well known to the Chinese people for centuries [image below by Brian Switek, aka Laelaps, and borrowed from here].
After Cuvier’s 1825 naming of the species, three additional species were named (A. ochraceus Hodgson, 1847, A. refulgens Milne-Edwards, 1874 and A. styani Thomas, 1902), but of these only A. styani has stood the test of time, albeit demoted to subspecific status (Roberts & Gittleman 1984). It’s sometimes called Styan’s panda. While the nominate subspecies – sometimes called the Western red panda – is pale-faced, Styan’s panda has bold facial markings, and is also larger. The two subspecies do appear distinct, but aren’t tremendously different genetically (Li et al. 2005). After looking at lots of pictures of Red pandas in the literature and on the net, it seems that virtually all of the individuals in captivity are, perhaps surprisingly, A. f. styani. In the image at the very top, A. f. styani is at right and A. f. fulgens at left.
Very little was known of the Red panda in the decades following its discovery, so when the first specimen was brought to London Zoo in 1869 it was assumed to be carnivorous like its relatives (the zoo people should have done their research, as Hodgson wrote in the 1840s about how captive pandas mostly shunned flesh of any type and would only really eat rice, milk and eggs). The story goes that the first specimen refused the meat that was given to it, and declined in health. On a whim, the superintendent Papa Bartlett took the poor starving animal for a walk through the gardens, and here it jumped into a flowerbed and began munching on rose buds and Pyrus fruits (Macdonald 1992). Yes, I took this story from David Macdonald’s The Velvet Claw, which you’ll know well from the recent Tet Zoo articles here and here.
Today, Ailurus is restricted to the Himalayan region, occurring in north-east India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China where it occurs in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan. It previously occurred in Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai provinces too, and one (possibly doubtful) record from eastern Kashmir suggests a historical range that extended much further west than the modern one (Roberts & Gittleman 1984). However, in distant times close relatives of the Red panda ranged much further, with fossils known from Europe and North America as well as Asia. A modest radiation of species existed: we’ll be calling them the ailurines, and they belong within a more inclusive group which we’ll be calling the ailurids. That’s coming next (this was just the intro)…
Refs – –
Hodgson, B. H. 1847. On the cat-toed subplantigrades of the sub-Himalayas. Journal of the Asiatic Society 16, 1113-1129.
Laidler, K. & Laidler, L. 1992. Pandas: Giants of the Bamboo Forest. BBC Books, London.
Li, M., Wei, F., Goossens, B., Feng, Z., Tamate, H. D., Bruford, M. W. & Funk, S. M. 2005. Mitochondrial phylogeography and subspecific variation in the red panda (Ailurus fulgens): implications for conservation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 36, 78-89.
Macdonald, D. W. 1992. The Velvet Claw: a Natural History of the Carnivores. BBC Books, London.
Roberts, M. S. & Gittleman, J. L. 1984. Ailurus fulgens. Mammalian Species 222, 1-8.