When is a ‘panda’ not a panda – and are any pandas actually bears?

The diminutive red panda is now the star of its own film. But what does it have in common with its bigger namesake – and are either of them related to bears? Here we delve into one of the most etymologically tricky names in the animal kingdom.

Published 11 Mar 2022, 11:51 GMT
A studio shot of a red panda

A six-month old red panda, shot by Joel Sartore for National Geographic's Photo Ark project, which aims to document every species of animal living in captivity around the world. 

Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

SAY 'PANDA' and immediately your mind goes big, fluffy, rare – and monochrome. But the infamously partner-picky, bamboo-chewing giant panda endemic to a sliver of China isn't the only creature to answer to the name.

There are in fact two distinct species that share this iconic name: The giant panda, and the red panda. But were you presented with a lineup and told to indicate the panda, one would stick out like a sore, rather red thumb. Despite it actually being the creature most entitled to the name. 

Turning red. Or black and white?

Firstly, the most obvious difference. At a standing height of five to six feet and a weighing up to 250 pounds (113 kg), the giant panda – and its higher altitude, slightly slighter subspecies the Qinling panda – is roughly comparable to a stocky, weighty human.

The red panda, however, is roughly comparable to a weighty house cat. The giant panda looks like a black bear in a costume; the red panda looks like a racoon that's gone rusty. Complete with a resplendent, ringed tail, cheese-wedge ears and pointed snout, the red panda is thoroughly cute – but in a way that's thoroughly unlike the other creature with which it shares the ‘p’ word. But is it simply a case of lazy name-calling? Not quite.

Turning Red, the new film from Disney-Pixar, follows Mei Lee, a teenager whose developing emotions cause her to transform into a (rather large) red panda. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic.)

Photograph by Disney-Pixar

Red in tooth and claw

The word ‘panda’ has an ambiguous origin, but one theory is that it is from either the Nepali nigalya ponya (‘bamboo eater’) or paja (‘claw’). One thing is certain, however – it was applied to the red panda first. 

The animal was described by French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier in 1825, who added the scientific name Ailurus fulgens, literally, ‘shining cat.’ Not unforgivably, Cuvier judged the red panda as being a particularly anti-social member of the raccoon family.  

“The red pandas are solitary and shy animals,” says Ang Phuri Sherpa, Nepal country director for conservation group The Red Panda Network. “They can be found in pairs at the time of their mating, and when cubs are accompanied by a mother.” Ang Phuri says the panda's name could have originated from another Nepali word, punde, which means ‘having white marks on their face,’ adding: “It is true in terms of etymology that red panda is the only ‘true’ panda.”

While pandas both giant and red share a common name, given their obvious physical differences you might expect them to not share a scientific name. Confusingly, they almost do. The giant panda's genus is Ailuropoda – which in this case means ‘cat-foot’, rather than simply ‘cat’. 

And it's in the foot that these apparently dissimilar creatures share one of two fascinating common features: the ‘false thumb’, or modified sesamoid digit. These specially evolved front paws, each with an elongated wrist bone, allows the animals to manipulate the principle ingredient of their second common feature: diet. Both animals eat bamboo, and have developed this physical trait geared to gripping those tubular stalks, a phenomenon of adaptation to a shared environment known as convergent evolution. 

This dietary quirk and their shared habitat in moist, misty mountainous areas of China certainly gives the two pandas something to talk about. But are they related? 

The fur of the red panda is typically a russett red, with a similar face 'mask' to the raccoon and a facial colouration ranging from pale (typically in the west) to deep red (in the east.)

A young Naxi man wears an elaborate hat made of red panda skin, China, 1929. While not nearly as famous as their larger namesakes, red pandas have faced similar threats from habitat loss and hunting for their pelts. This use of the resplendent fur is reminiscent of the ‘'coonskin hat’ made famous by American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett – underlining the red panda's association with the raccoon. 

Bearing up

The plot thickens when we consider how the giant panda got its name. It was a French missionary and naturalist named Père Armand David who, whilst roaming the Baoxing county in China's Sichuan Province, first brought the animal to western attention – in 1869, when he saw the shot carcass of a 'whitebear', as he called it. “I believe it to be a new species, not only because of its skin colour, but also because of the hair beneath its feet and other characteristics,” he wrote in his journal

To Armand David it certainly resembled a bear, with its bulky, shambling gait and thick fur. The locals called it a panda – it ate bamboo, after all – but Armand David disagreed, classifying it Ursus melanoleucus, or ‘black-white bear’. Excited by his find, he began a correspondence with Alphonse Milne-Edwards, a French zoologist, to whom he sent a pelt and a skull for inspection. 

China's Sichuan province, home of both the giant panda and the red panda. The latter's habitat is wider, stretching from Nepal in the west to China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. In 2020 it was found this has enabled two distinct subspecies of red panda to evolve, which diverged around 250,000 years ago – the more vibrant Chinese red panda, and the paler Himalayan red panda. 

The giant panda was recently reclassified from endangered to vulnerable by the IUCN, due to positive population trends. It's estimated around 1,900 individuals remain in the wild, and increasing. 

Furry fossils

Milne-Edwards questioned the strange creature's classification, claiming the skull, teeth and claws made it more physiologically aligned with a certain red haired, bamboo-eating member of the raccoon family described 40 years before – though clearly having climbed a good way along its own evolutionary branch. Publishing a description in his Recherches pour servir l’histoire naturelle des mammifčres, Milne-Edwards reclassified it accordingly as Ailuropus melanoleucus to reflect what he saw as at least a dotted line to the red panda. 

The argument rumbles on. More recently DNA and molecular studies have yielded contradictory results – with some claiming the pandas are in no way related to each other, and others suggesting giant pandas are true bears. Some claim red pandas are actually fancy mustelids – a family that includes weasels, badgers, wolverines, martens and polecats – and that both panda varieties have a streak of raccoon in there somewhere.  

What seems unanimous is that neither animal sits contentedly into any group, with both often described as ‘living fossils’ – the last of a particularly adventurous evolutionary line.

“Were the lines between the species boiled down, you could argue the giant panda is a bear, but not a panda – and the red panda is a panda, but not a bear.”

The red panda today remains in its very own family, Ailuridae. So too the giant panda, which – while firmly now in the family Ursidae (bears) – retains its unique genus of Ailuropoda. Both continue to be argued over, but with the uneasy consensus that both animals and all their speculated relatives likely shared a common, unfathomably ancient and mysterious ancestor. So heated has the subject around both pandas' place in the animal kingdom that it has prompted wider discussions around what features should be considered as taxonomic dealbreakers when classifying an animal.

In his 1993 book on the subject, The Last Panda, naturalist George B. Schaller acknowledged the classification argument with the peerlessly pithy: “When giving a lecture, I am often asked at the end whether the giant panda is a bear or raccoon. To keep my reply brief, I usually answer, ‘The panda is a panda.’”

Relative fame 

So were the lines between the species boiled down, you could argue the giant panda is a bear, but not a panda – and the red panda is a panda, but not a bear.

While red pandas are getting a showcase in the latest Disney-Pixar movie, there's no question the giant panda is the more iconic of the pair – despite the smaller animal facing its own very real challenges. Classified as endangered by the IUCN due to its declining population, the diminutive forest-dweller has suffered many of the same fates as its bigger namesake. “Their biggest threats in the wild are we, the human being,” says Ang Phuri Sherpa. “Their survival in the wild is highly [related to] the human-induced causes like deforestation and degradation of their habitats, poaching, illegal smuggling, and trade of their skin or pelts.” It's thought around 10,000 individuals remain in the wild. 

As for the giant panda, following decades of declining populations due to the same habitat loss and poaching, it has become an enduring symbol of the need for wildlife conservation. Now with numbers around 1,900 in the wild and breeding programs worldwide to help assuage an already somewhat tricky procreation process, the giant panda was recently reclassified as vulnerable due to a slowly increasing population. Along the way it's become arguably the world's most recognisable animal – ironic, given its ambiguity within science. 

In China, its largely serene countenance and 50/50 colour scheme has been likened to the yinyang, the Chinese spiritual symbol denoting balance in opposites. And while the two panda species may seem similarly opposed – like yin and yang itself – each clearly has more than a little in common with the other.  

Turning Red is playing in selected cinemas and streaming on Disney+ from 11 March.

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