The family Ailuridae includes just a single living species, the Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), which occurs in a narrow range extending west to Nepal and east to southwestern China. The evolutionary affinities of this species remain uncertain, with morphological and molecular phylogenetic data having led various researchers to conclude that it is most closely related to Procyonidae (raccoon family), Ursidae (bears), or ursids plus seals, among other possibilities. As of 2013, it appears that Ailuridae is sister to a clade consisting of (Procyonidae + Mustelidae), with Mephitidae basal to (Ailuridae + Procyonidae + Mustelidae) (Eizirik et al. 2010; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds 2012; Sato et al. 2012). The Red Panda is no longer believed to be closely related to the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), whose placement in the bear family (Ursidae) is now well established, although it shares with the Giant Panda a bamboo diet and certain associated morphological peculiarities (bamboo leaves constitute around 80 to 90% of the Red Panda's diet).
Red Pandas are found in temperate forests of the Himalayas and in the mountains of northern Burma and western Sichuan and Yunnan at elevations of 1500 to 4800 meters (and even up to the snowline at 5000 meters in summer). In Meghalaya (northeastern India), they have been found in tropical forests at much lower elevations, between 1700 and 1400 meters. Red Pandas are found in forests with a thick bamboo understory. Around half of the geographic range falls within China.
Except during the mating season, Red Pandas are generally solitary. They are well adapted for climbing and spend much of their time off the ground.
At least in China, Red Panda populations declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century. The greatest threats to Red Panda populations are habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and trade in live animals, although Red Pandas are legally protected in China, India, Bhutan, and Nepal and protected areas with Red Pandas have been established in all these countries.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage
Specimens with Sequences:10
Specimens with Barcodes:8
Species With Barcodes:1
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Frédéric Georges Cuvier first described Ailurus as belonging to the raccoon family in 1825; this classification has been controversial ever since. It was classified in the raccoon family (Procyonidae) because of morphological similarities of the head, colored ringed tail, and other morphological and ecological characteristics. Then, it was assigned to the bear family (Ursidae).
Molecular phylogenetic studies show that, as an ancient species in the order Carnivora, the Red Panda is relatively close to the American Raccoon and may be either a monotypic family or a subfamily within the procynonid family. An in-depth mitochondrial DNA population analysis study stated: “According to the fossil record, the Red Panda diverged from its common ancestor with bears about 40 million years ago (Mayr 1986). With this divergence, by comparing the sequence difference between the red panda and the raccoon, the observed mutation rate for the red panda was calculated to be on the order of 109, which is apparently an underestimate compared with the average rate in mammals. This underestimation is probably due to multiple recurrent mutations as the divergence between the red panda and the raccoon is extremely deep.”
The most recent molecular-systematic DNA research places the red panda into its own independent family, Ailuridae. Ailuridae are, in turn, part of a trichotomy within the broad superfamily Musteloidea (Flynn et al., 2001) that also includes the Mephitidae + Mustelidae (skunks + weasels) and the Procyonidae (raccoons); but it is not a bear (Ursidae).
Red Pandas have no close living relatives, and their nearest fossil ancestors, Parailurus, lived 3-4 million years ago. There may have been as many as three different species of Parailurus, all larger and more robust in the head and jaw, living in Europe and Asia but possibly crossing the Bering Strait into the Americas. The red panda may be the sole surviving species - a specialized offshoot surviving the Ice Age in a Chinese mountain refuge.
- Family Ailuridae
- Genus Protursus (†)
- Protursus simpsoni
- ?Subfamily Amphictinae
- Subfamily Simocyoninae (†)
- Subfamily Ailurinae
- Genus Protursus (†)
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