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Red pandas like this one are endangered in the mountains in Asia where they live.

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Out on a Limb

Biologists study endangered red pandas to learn how to save them in the wild

With their playful faces, fiery fur, and big, bushy tails, red pandas are some of the world’s cutest creatures. “You can’t help but smile when you see them, especially the cubs,” says biologist Elizabeth Freeman. 

Freeman works at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. Scientists there breed red pandas and raise their young. When the cubs are a year old, they’re moved to zoos across the U.S. 

Red pandas are some of the world’s cutest creatures. They have playful faces. They also have red fur and big, bushy tails. “You can’t help but smile when you see them, especially the cubs,” says Elizabeth Freeman. 

Freeman is a biologist. She works at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. It’s located in Virginia. Scientists there raise red panda cubs. They’re moved to zoos across the U.S. when they’re a year old.

Wild red pandas live in just one place: the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in Asia (see Red Panda Range). But the animals are endangered, with fewer than 10,000 left. 

At the Smithsonian center, Freeman and her colleagues study the pandas in captivity. Meanwhile, other scientists are working to protect the pandas’ habitat in the wild. Experts hope that together, these efforts will save the unique animals.

Wild red pandas live in just one place. They’re found in the foothills of the Himalayas. This mountain range is in Asia (see Red Panda Range). But the animals are endangered. Freeman and other scientists study the pandas at the Smithsonian center. Other researchers are working in the wild. They want to protect the pandas’ habitat. Experts hope that these efforts will save the animals.

Panda Profile

Despite the name, red pandas aren’t closely related to black-and-white panda bears. In fact, red pandas aren’t bears at all. The fluffy animals are related to raccoons, weasels, and skunks. 

Special adaptations help red pandas survive in cool, rainy Himalayan forests. Though their relatives have varied diets, red pandas eat mainly bamboo, a plant abundant in the area.

Red pandas’ thick coats keep them warm in the cold weather. They live mostly in trees, where their color helps them hide from predators—and from scientists. “That has limited our ability to observe them in the wild,” says Freeman.

Red pandas aren’t actually closely related to black-and-white panda bears. In fact, red pandas aren’t bears at all. The animals are related to raccoons, weasels, and skunks. 

Red pandas have special adaptations that help them survive in Himalayan forests. The conditions there are cool and rainy. Red pandas eat mainly bamboo. A lot of this plant grows in the area.

Red pandas have thick coats. They keep the animals warm in the cold weather. Red pandas live mostly in trees. Their color helps them hide from predators. But it also keeps them hidden from scientists. “That has limited our ability to observe them in the wild,” says Freeman.

JESSICA KORDELL/SMITHSONIAN CONSERVATION BIOLOGY INSTITUTE

A red panda cub named Russ plays outside.

In recent years, though, red pandas’ forest habitat has changed. People have cleared trees to make room for farms and roads. Dogs brought in by people can hunt red pandas and spread diseases to them.

Another big threat is climate change. As temperatures in the region warm, scientists expect red pandas to move higher up the mountains where it’s cooler. There they’ll compete with other species for food and shelter. No one knows if they can survive.

Red pandas’ forest habitat has changed in recent years. People have cleared trees. They’re making room for farms and roads. Dogs brought in by people can hunt red pandas. Dogs also spread diseases to the animals.

Another big threat is climate change. It’s causing temperatures in the region to warm. Scientists expect red pandas to move higher up the mountains. It’s cooler there. But they’ll have to compete with other animals for food and places to live. No one knows if they can survive.

JANICE SVEDA/SMITHSONIAN CONSERVATION BIOLOGY INSTITUTE

At birth, red pandas are the size of a human hand.

Caring for Cubs

At the Smithsonian center, scientists are working to make sure red pandas thrive in captivity. Every winter, they pair up adult red pandas. About four months later, each mother gives birth to up to three fuzzy cubs. 

Red pandas are vulnerable during their first year of life. Animal keeper Jessica Kordell gives the cubs regular health checkups. She and other staff weigh them to make sure they’re growing.

Scientists are working to make sure red pandas thrive in zoos as well. The Smithsonian center pairs up adult red pandas every winter. Each mother gives birth to up to three fuzzy cubs about four months later.

Red pandas need to be looked after during their first year of life. Animal keeper Jessica Kordell gives the cubs regular health checkups. She and other staff weigh them to make sure they’re growing. 

MEGHAN MURPHY/SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL ZOO

Scientists weigh the cubs daily to make sure they’re growing.

If a red panda mother dies or can’t care for her young, staff at the center have to raise them. The work can be exhausting. Like baby humans, newborn cubs must be fed every few hours. Their caretakers sometimes don’t get much sleep! 

As the pandas grow, the team observes them. The scientists use cameras to peek at mothers snuggling with cubs in their dens. They also study the pandas’ droppings. Chemicals in the droppings can indicate if an animal is stressed or sick. 

This research will give scientists a clearer picture of how to help red pandas in the wild. For instance, if scientists learn that loud noises cause red panda mothers stress during certain times of year, scientists could work to limit disruptive human activity in the forest at those times.

The center’s staff sometimes has to raise baby red pandas themselves. That happens if their mother dies or can’t care for her young. The work can be tiring. Like baby humans, newborn cubs must be fed every few hours. Their caretakers sometimes don’t get much sleep! 

The team watches the pandas as they grow. The scientists use cameras to peek at mothers. The staff sees the moms snuggling with cubs in their dens. They also study the pandas’ droppings. Chemicals in them can reveal if the animals are stressed or sick. 

This research will guide scientists to better help red pandas in the wild. For instance, loud noises might cause red panda mothers stress. This might happen during certain times of year. People could then limit loud activities in the forest at those times.

JANICE SVEDA/SMITHSONIAN CONSERVATION BIOLOGY INSTITUTE

Staff feed the cubs a formula made for red pandas.

Habitat Help

Experts agree that the most important thing people can do to save red pandas is protect their habitat. 

The Red Panda Network is an organization trying to do just that. The group is working with local governments to set aside a section of the Himalayan forest where construction isn’t allowed. 

The organization also trains people living near the forests in Nepal and India to help protect the red pandas in their area. These locals replant trees and educate their communities about conserving the forest. 

There’s one big thing people can do to save red pandas. They need to protect their habitat. 

The Red Panda Network is a group trying to do just that. It’s working with local governments to set aside a part of the Himalayan forest. No construction will be allowed there.

The group also trains people living near the forests in Nepal and India. These locals plant new trees. And they teach other locals about protecting the forest. That way they can help the red pandas in their area. 

JESSICA KORDELL/SMITHSONIAN CONSERVATION BIOLOGY INSTITUTE

Climbing and playing help the cubs practice survival skills.

This work is paying off, says Angela Glatston, a biologist at the Red Panda Network. “Red panda numbers are growing in the areas where we’re working,” she says. “But we still have a long way to go.” 

Scientists hope that the more people learn about red pandas, the more they will want to protect them. “We don’t want to lose this species,” says Kordell. 

This work is paying off, says Angela Glatston. She’s a biologist at the Red Panda Network. “Red panda numbers are growing in the areas where we’re working,” she says. “But we still have a long way to go.” 

Scientists want people to learn more about red pandas. They hope that this will inspire people to protect the animals. “We don’t want to lose this species,” says Kordell.

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