Geneticists have confirmed that the bushy-tailed red panda – resembling a cross between a cat and a racoon more than its larger black and white namesake – is in fact two distinct species.
The endearing little critter “has given scientists taxonomic fits”.
It’s been classified as a relative of the giant panda which shares its habitat and bamboo diet (although the red panda has a broader range and culinary tastes) and the racoon by virtue of its ringed tail.
Adding to that, scientists have made distinctions between the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and its Chinese cousin (Ailurus styani).
The Chinese red panda, as well as having a different geographic distribution, has a redder face with fewer white markings and more distinct tail rings than the Himalayan native.
But classifying them as different species or sub-species has been “controversial” until now.
Yibo Hu, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues have put the debate to rest by adding genetic evidence to the mix, publishing their findings in the journal Science Advances.
They sequenced the whole genomes of 65 wild red pandas from seven populations across Asia from blood, muscle and skin samples and looked at variations in DNA base pairs on the Y chromosome.
Their findings, aligning with the morphological differences, “provide the most comprehensive genetic evidence of species delimitation”, according to the paper.
Additionally, the results suggest that the dividing line between the two species is not along the Nujiang River as previously claimed, but rather the Yalu Zanbu River – although this needs further verification with samples from Bhutan and India.
That means the red pandas inhabiting south-eastern Tibet and northern Myanmar belong to the Chinese species while those in southern Tibet and Nepal are Himalayan red pandas.
Furthermore, analyses revealed that the Chinese red pandas have three genetically different populations.
Why is this important?
“The delineation of species, subspecies and population is fundamental for insights into the biology and evolution of species and effective conservation management,” Hu and colleagues write.
According to the paper, the uncertain status of the species’ classification and their distribution has hampered scientifically informed conservation measures to protect the endangered mammals.
Appropriate species-specific measures could more successfully revive declining populations; for instance, by preventing interbreeding between two different species in captivity.
Red pandas once roamed wide areas of Eurasia but are now restricted to the southern and southeastern edges of the Quinghai-Tibetan Plateau at altitudes of 2200 to 4800 metres.
The small group of Himalayan red pandas has long experienced population bottlenecks, and the genetic analysis revealed this has “severely impaired its genetic evolutionary potential” by reducing its genetic diversity.
As it spans southern Tibet of China, Nepal, India and Bhutan, the researchers call for “urgent transboundary international cooperation to protect this decreasing species”.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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