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Red Pandas (Ailurus fulgens & A. styani) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • There are 2 main groups of carnivores: dog-like carnivores ("Caniformia") and cats. How the red panda fits within the dog group is undetermined.
    • Fossil evidence is scarce but suggests a close tie to the Procyonidae (raccoons).
    • Molecular studies support a relationship to Mustelidae (weasels) and Mephitidae (skunks).
  • Hu et al. (2020) report genetic evidence of 2 separate red panda species
    • Previously, subspecies groupings used to distinguish physical and biogeographical differences
  • Nomenclature: In 1821, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke described the red panda in a paper presented to the Linnaean Society*. Because his paper was not published until 6 years later, he is not credited as the describer.
    • "Panda" origin unclear. May derive from a local name, "nigalya ponya," which may have meant something like "bamboo footed” (Catton 1990).
    • The "Giant" panda was named 48 years later because of similarities to the Red panda
    • *In 1825, Cuvier published the description, choosing the name Ailurus fulgens meaning "shining" or "fire-colored" cat
  • Common names:
    • English – Red panda, Lesser panda, Red cat-bear, Fire fox, Fox bear, Himalayan raccoon
    • Burma – Kyaung-wun
    • China – Chu-chieh-liang, Xia xong mao
    • Central Nepal – Hobrey
    • French – Panda éclatant, Petit panda
    • Spanish – Panda chico, Panda rojo

Evolutionary History

  • Between 30 and 50 million years ago, ancestors of modern bears (ursids) split into 2 lineages (O'Brien 1985)
    • Within 10 million years of the split (possibly at the same time), the procyonid group split into Old World procyonids (lesser panda) and New World procyonids (raccoon, coati, olingo, and kinkajou)
    • The Giant panda diverged from other ursids 15-25 million years ago
  • 2 species of red pandas diverged about 250,000 years ago (Hu et al. 2020)
  • Red pandas and Giant pandas are not closely related, although they share a number of similar characteristics (this is known as "convergent evolution")
    • Both are bamboo eaters with well-developed jaws, grinding molars, and similar digestive systems
    • Both have "false thumbs," which are also found in another fossil carnivore (Salesa 2011)
    • Both have similar reproductive organs
    • Red pandas are the only remaining member of the Ailuridae, while Giant pandas are bears (Ursidae)
  • The earliest "ailurids" probably originated in Europe during Late Oligocene-Early Miocene (25-18 million years ago)
  • First true Red pandas appear during the Miocene in Spain

Cultural History

  • Earliest reference: 13th century Chou Dynasty scroll
  • Because habitat is largely inaccessible, and the species is extremely secretive, it has had relatively little economic or cultural impact
  • Red panda fur is considered good luck by some tribal people – red panda fur hats are still worn in many regions, especially by bridegrooms
  • The sight of a red panda when traveling on business is considered to be a good omen
  • In Central Bhutan, they are thought to be the reincarnation of Buddhist monks
  • Favorite pet of Indian Prime Minister Nehru
  • Also see Red Panda Network resources for list of videos and documentaries


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758) - mammals

Order: Carnivora (Bowdich, 1821) - carnivores

Family: Ailuridae (Gray, 1843)

Genus: Ailurus (F. G. Cuvier, 1825)

Species: Ailurus fulgens — Himalayan red panda

Species: Ailurus styani — Chinese red panda

Sources: Integrated Taxonomic Inventory System (2017), Hu et al. (2020)

Bear, Racoon, or "Fire Fox"?

Red Panda grooms toes

The red panda has many common names, including "fire fox" and "red cat-bear."

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Glatson & Gebauer (2011)
Groves (2011)
O'Brien (1985)
Poglayen-Neuwall (1990)
Salesa (2011)

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