Red pandas have always lived in the shadow of the other, more famous panda. But now it’s time to give them their due.
1. Red pandas have two extinct relatives.
Currently, red pandas live in the eastern Himalayas. But the first red panda fossil was found a little bit farther afield from that—in the United Kingdom. In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized animal called the giant panda (unrelated to the modern giant panda) were discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.
2. Red pandas are carnivores, but for plants.
It might seem like an oxymoron, but carnivore in this case doesn’t mean meat eater. Carnivora is the biological order including groups like bears, dogs, and cats, and while these animals are generally carnivores, some are omnivores, and some are vegetarians. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they’re descended from the same ancestors as the other carnivores, but they rarely eat anything other than bamboo and a few insects. And while giant pandas eat all of a bamboo plant, red pandas eat only the young leaves. Because this is such a nutritionally poor food source, they need to spend 13 hours a day eating and looking for food and can lose upwards of 15 percent of their body weight in winter.
3. Red pandas are slightly bigger than domestic cats.
But their tails add as much as 18 inches to their length. Red pandas live solitary lives in trees, high up in the mountains, so they wrap those big, bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. (They also use them for balance.)
4. Red pandas have a false thumb.
This is another feature (along with diet) that red pandas and giant pandas share. Because both pandas have false thumbs—which is actually an extended wrist bone—it was thought that it must be an adaption to eating bamboo. But the red panda’s more carnivorous ancestors had this feature as well. According to a 2006 study, what happened was “one of the most dramatic cases of convergence among vertebrates.” Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals faced with similar circumstances evolve to look similar. In this case, the red panda’s false thumb evolved to help it climb trees, and only later became adapted for the bamboo diet, while giant pandas evolved this virtually identical feature because of their bamboo diet.
5. Red pandas are escape artists ...
Rusty the red panda had been at the Smithsonian National Zoo for just three weeks when he made a break for it in June 2013. His method of escape? A tree branch that was pushed down over his enclosure’s electric fence by heavy rains. The ensuing panda hunt (and endless bad jokes about panda-monium) captivated Twitter. Tweeters used the hashtag #findrusty until he was found in a nearby neighborhood. Soon after his daring escape, Rusty became a father, forcing him to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. But it could have been worse. After a similar escape in Dresden, Germany, the authorities got another red panda down from a tree by using a fire hose to spray it with water. The panda fell 30 feet to the ground, giving it a concussion. (Ultimately, the animal was OK.)
Red pandas have also escaped from zoos in London, Birmingham, and Rotterdam. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums even warns in its official care manual to “beware: red pandas are escape artists” [PDF].
6. ... And one escape led to something called the “Red Panda Effect.”
Sadly, the red panda involved in the 1978 Rotterdam escape was found dead not long after the search for it began. But the event led to a very peculiar psychological observation. Even after the body of the panda was found, more than 100 people reported seeing it, very much alive. These sightings were clearly mistaken; there’s no reason to think that multiple red pandas were loose in Rotterdam, and red pandas are distinctive enough that mistaking them for a dog or cat was unlikely. It’s believed that people expected to see a red panda, so they saw one, even though there wasn’t one there. Researchers called it the Red Panda Effect.
7. There’s an internet browser named after red pandas.
Mozilla’s flagship browser, Firefox, means red panda. Originally, Mozilla wanted to name the browser Firebird, but found that another open source project was using that name. Not wanting to upset anyone, they decided to go with Firefox, another name for the red panda. And in a true example of adorableness, in 2010 Mozilla adopted two baby red pandas that had been born at Tennessee’s Knoxville Zoo.
8. There is only one true panda ...
After the red panda was introduced to Western science in the 1820s, it was just called the panda (the origin of the name is controversial, but it probably comes from the Nepali word ponya, meaning “bamboo or plant eating animal”). Forty years later, Europeans found a new animal in China and called it the parti-colored bear—because unlike polar bears, black bears, or brown bears, it was multi-colored.
9. ... And there has been a 140-year taxonomic mixup ...
Prepare to be confused: In the late 19th century, scientists noticed that the parti-colored bear and the (red) panda were very similar. Their jaws were more like each other than they were like any other animal, they lived near each other, they both had false thumbs, and their diets were similar. The decision was made to officially consider the (red) panda as a type of bear.
By the early 20th century, that decision was reversed: Parti-colored bears were declared bears, and (red) pandas were classified as cousins of the raccoon.
Then, in the 1910s, it was decided that parti-colored bears weren’t actually bears at all, but were actually large pandas, and also distant relatives of the raccoon. But because parti-colored bears weren’t classed as bears anymore, they had to have a name change. They became giant pandas, while the one true panda was renamed the red or lesser panda (to quote a 1920 issue of Popular Science: “Zoologists reverently refer to this rare beast as the ‘giant panda.’” Its more popular cognomen is the ‘bear-raccoon’”).
10. ... But red pandas are their own thing
By the 1980s, genetic evidence indicated that giant pandas actually were a type of bear, and red pandas belonged in their own family, the Ailuridae. They might seem similar, but they’re not related.
All of this means that if you’re the type of person who rolls their eyes when someone calls a bison a buffalo, or a koala a bear, you need to stop calling the bear a panda and instead refer to it as a “parti-colored bear,” the original English name (but if you wanted to call it the bear-raccoon, no one would stop you). Giant pandas are not pandas. There is only one true panda.
11. This doesn’t affect Kung Fu Panda 3.
There’s still a kung fu panda in the series: Shifu, a red panda.
12. Red pandas are endangered.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Habitat destruction increases the species’ chances of extinction.
A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.