Red pandas found to be two distinct species: study
Published: Feb 27, 2020 09:13 PM Updated: Feb 27, 2020 04:13 PM
Red pandas, the bushy-tailed and russet-furred bamboo munchers that dwell in Asian high forests, are not a single species but rather two distinct ones, according to the most comprehensive genetic study to date on these endangered mammals.

Two red pandas play in the Hangzhou Zoo on Friday. Photo: VCG

Scientists said on Wednesday they found substantial divergences between the two species - Chinese red pandas and Himalayan red pandas - in three genetic markers in an analysis of DNA from 65 of the animals.

The recognition of the existence of two separate species could help guide conservation efforts for a mammal adored by many people even as its numbers dwindle in the wild, they added.

Chinese red pandas are found in northern Myanmar as well as Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and southeastern Tibet Autonomous Region in China, while Himalayan red pandas are native to Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet in China, the researchers said.

International experts have estimated a total population of roughly 10,000 red pandas in the wild.

"To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity," said Chinese Academy of Sciences conservation biologist Hu Yibo, who along with colleague Wei Fuwen led the study published in the journal Science Advances. "Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment."

Scientists previously recognized red pandas as divided into two subspecies. While it had been proposed that these were separate species, the new study was the first to provide the genetic data necessary to allow such a judgment.

The Himalayan red panda is the scarcer of the two and needs urgent protection because of low genetic diversity and small population size, Hu said. The Yarlung Zangbo River most likely marks the geographical boundary separating the two species, not the Nujiang River as previously believed, Hu added.

The two species also differ in coloration and skull shape.

Slightly bigger than a domestic cat, red pandas have thick fur, a short snout and pointed ears.