WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The red pandas, the thick-tailed and reddish-brown bamboo chewers that inhabit the high forests of Asia, are not a single species, but two distinct species, according to the most comprehensive genetic study to date. these endangered mammals.
ARCHIVE PHOTO: A one-year-old Red Panda sits in the trees, having recently arrived at a new location at Manor Wildlife Park, St Florence, near Tenby, Wales, on July 18, 2018. REUTERS / Rebecca Naden / File Photo
Scientists said on Wednesday that they found substantial divergences between the two species – Chinese red pandas and red Himalayan pandas – in three genetic markers in an analysis of 65 of the animals' DNA.
Recognizing the existence of two separate species can help guide conservation efforts for a mammal adored by many people, even when their numbers dwindle in the wild, they added.
Chinese red pandas are found in northern Myanmar and in the southeastern provinces of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan in China, while red Himalayan pandas are native to Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet in China, the researchers said.
International experts have estimated a total population of approximately 10,000 red pandas in the wild.
"To preserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we must avoid crossing them in captivity," said Chinese biologist Yibo Hu, of the Academy of Science Sciences, who together with colleague Fuwen Wei led the study published in the journal Science Advances. "Crossbreeding between species can damage the genetic adaptations already established for the local habitat environment".
Scientists previously recognized red pandas as divided into two subspecies. Although it was proposed that these species were separated, the new study was the first to provide the genetic data necessary to allow such a judgment.
The Himalayan red panda is the scarcer of the two and needs urgent protection due to low genetic diversity and small population size, said Wu. The Yalu Zangbu River probably marks the geographical boundary that separates the two species, and not the Nujiang River, as previously believed, Wu added.
The two species also differ in color and shape of the skull.
“The Himalayan red panda has more white on its face, while the Chinese red panda's coat color is more red with less white. The tail rings of the Chinese red panda are more distinct than those of the Himalayan red panda, with the dark rings being darker and the pale ones being more whitish, ”said Hu.
Slightly larger than a domestic cat, red pandas have thick fur, a short snout and pointed ears, spending most of their life in the trees and dining mainly on bamboo. The main threats to red pandas include deforestation and habitat degradation due to human development.
Despite similar names, red pandas and giant pandas are not closely related. Giant pandas are one of eight species of bear in the world.
Red pandas, without close living relatives, are sometimes called living fossils as the only remaining member of the Ailuridae family of mammals. They are probably more closely related to a group that includes weasels, raccoons and skunks.
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler
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