Posts Tagged ‘red panda’

red panda mom

Mozilla Firefox is a browser with an interesting zoological name.

I think it’s a little strange that people don’t know what a “firefox” is, but it is an alternate name for the red panda. The company that developed the browser is quite into red pandas for this reason, but I don’t think the typical user of the product really thinks much about the name.

Red pandas are perhaps the most unusual carnivoran from a taxonomy perspective.  For most of the twentieth century, it was assumed that red and giant were close relatives. Both animals live in Asia, and both have this unusual “thumb” that is made out of one their wrist bones. The feature is used to grip bamboo, and it was just assumed they evolved this trait from a common ancestor.

Red pandas look a lot like raccoons, and it was proposed that they were procyonids, just because they looks so much like a more specialized form of raccoon. And if this animal is a raccoon and the giant panda is its closest relative, giant pandas are not bears.

The classification of the giant panda was resolved though a molecular and genetic measures that were published in 1985. Giant pandas are bears, though they are a very divergent form of bear. Further, the giant panda’s chromosomes were found to be mostly fusions of the typical bear karyotype.

Red pandas, though, were even more strange. They weren’t bears, and they weren’t procyonids either.  In this study, they were as divergent from bears and procyonids as bears and procyonids are from each other, but the techniques in those days were rudimentary and not conclusive.

However, this finding suggested that red pandas really are something else. They were given their own family name (Ailuridae), and researchers have spent several decades trying to figure out where these animals fit in the order Carnivora.

Of course, figuring out exactly where they fit they were took some time. In 2009, we finally got a good molecular study that looked at a relatively large same of nuclear DNA of red pandas, procyonids, mustelids (weasels, ferrets, otters, wolverines, martens, and mink), and mephitids (skunks and stink badgers).  It found that red pandas formed a clade with procyonids and mustelids. They are roughly as closely related to mustelids as they are to procyonids, so they definitely do deserve their own family name.

This is largely the consensus view on where red pandas fit, but there is an alternate view that has popped up as result of another molecular study.

In 2010, an analysis of the cytochrome-b sequences from 243 carnivoran species and subspecies found something unusual. The red panda was found to be most closely related to canids.

This finding is somewhat surprising, and because this study is based upon a very small part of the mitochondrial DNA from each sample, it is problematic. If you look at the phylogeny proposed in this paper, it puts the kinkajou outside of Procyonidae, and a clade is formed with the Ethiopian wolf, red wolf, and the coyote, while another clade is formed with the various subspecies of the Holarctic wolf and the golden jackal. These are problematic because full-genome comparisons tend to place the coyote as much closer to the Holarctic wolf than we ever thought, and the exact position of the other species still must be worked out.

But let’s just say that this study’s findings about the red panda are later confirmed in another nuclear DNA study or one that uses full-genome comparisons.

If the red panda is the closest living relative to the dog family, then we’ve got something interesting. Canids were an early diverging family in the order Carnivora. Their sister family were the amphicyonids, which are often called “bear-dogs” in English. This family consisted of plantigrade species that were sort like wolverine-lions. They went extinct 1.8 million years ago.

Dogs are not that closely related to rest of what are called the “caniform” carnivorans, so when the amphicyonids became extinct, they were the last of their lineage.

If the red panda really is that close to the dog family, its exact position with regard to both canids and amphycyonids is not entirely clear.  It could be that red pandas are actually a sister taxa to the extinct bear dogs, which would be an interesting find.

One should keep in mind that the red panda family used to include some pretty fell beasts.  Simocyon was a genus of cougar-sized predators that lived throughout Eurasia and was also found in North America and Africa during the late Miocene and Pliocene epochs. These creatures were fully carnivorous– and they had the wrist thumb that one finds on the red panda living today. The discovery of this thumb on this extinct relative with such a different ecological niche revealed that the red panda’s thumb came about far earlier than we expected. And it had nothing to do with gripping bamboo to eat.  It had more to do with climbing around in trees.

The giant panda’s thumb does have to do with eating vegetation.  A Miocene bear in the panda lineage from Spain called Indarctos arctoides already started to have some deviations with the bone that becomes the “thumb” in modern pandas.

The trait evolved without any common ancestry, and it is only one of those ironies of natural history that these two creatures have this feature and use it in much the same way.

So giant panda really is a bear, and the firefox might be a kin to the dogs.  (But probably isn’t).




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Dog breed origins are often shrouded in a “creation myth.”  If you ever read an all-breed dog book, the official breed origins come across as awfully fanciful. Virtually every breed is regarded as ancient or derived from some private stock belonging to some notable:  Afghan hounds were the dogs Noah took on the Ark.  Beagles appear on the Bayeux Tapestry. Pharaoh hounds were the hunting  dogs of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties.

These stories posit the breed as being part of something deep in the past and maintaining the breeds is magnified as a way of paying homage to the past.

Some breeds are, however, pretty old, or at least genetically distinct from the rest of dogdom to be seen as something unique. Chow chows are a good example. They retain a lot of unique, primitive characters, and as East Asian primitive dogs, they may be among the oldest of strains still in existence.

Konrad Lorenz deeply admired the breed’s wolf-like attributes, believing they represented the best of the so-called “Lupus dogs.” Lorenz believed that most dogs were actually the descendants of golden jackals, and the dogs were friendly to most people and easily broken to fit the will of man. These were the “Aureus dogs.” But the dogs that were more aloof and more independent of the wishes of their masters were seen as the direct descendants of wolves. Lorenz preferred this type of dog, and he kept many chows and chow crosses in crosses as his own personal dogs and “study subjects.”

Lorenz later rejected the dichotomy between the jackal and wolf dogs, but the idea is still worth exploring. What Lorenz actually discovered was a profound division that exists in domestic dogs:  the primitive versus the derived.

In terms of evolution, an organism is considered primitive if it retains characters and behavior that are very like the ancestral form.  For example, lemurs are considered more primitive than other primates because they have the long muzzles and wet noses of the ancestral primates.

Primitive dogs are those that retain many features in common with the wolf. These features include erect ears, pointed muzzles, howling rather than barking, bitches having only one heat cycle per year,  pair-bonding behavior, and general tendency not to be obedient.  Many primitive dogs bond with only a single person, and in the most extreme cases, allow only that person to touch them.

Lots of “Nordic” breeds fall into this category, but this list also includes many of the drop-eared sighthounds from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. It also includes many of the village dogs from undeveloped countries, as well as the semi-domesticated pariah dogs and dingoes.

The chow chow sort of fit between both Nordic breed type and the village dog type.  It has many of the features of the Nordic breeds– curled tail and prick ears– but it also has had a long history as a village dog in China, where it had periods in which it freely bred.

One would think that chow chow fanciers would be into celebrating their dogs as primitives, like owning something between wild and domestic.

But dog people being dog people are more than willing to add embellishments.

Westerners have done a lot to add to the bear-like features of the chow chow, which Konrad Lorenz actually castigated.

However, dog breeders will often go to great lengths to justify breeding decisions, including putting out absolute science fiction as scientific fact.

A few years ago, I heard an acquaintance mention that a well-educated chow owner she knew firmly believed that chow chow were derived from bears.

I laughed at it.  I did not think there was a serious discussion that chow chows were derived from bears.

And then I received notice of this website, which purports to have the full history of the chow chow. The history begins as follows:

It´s assumed that during the Miocene period (between 28 to 12 million years back), the evolution of the Hemicyon, an intermediary between the Cynoelesmus [sic], “father” of all the canine ones, and the Daphoneus [sic] – from which the bears descend as we know them today, – originated the Simocyon, an animal that varied between a fox and a small bear that inhabited in the sub-Arctic regions Siberia and the Northwest of Mongolia and of which it is known had 44 teeth.

I don’t know where this actually comes from, but it is entirely in ignorance of what we now know about the evolution of bears and dogs.  Dogs and bears are indeed closely related, but the division between the two is much deeper than the dates proposed here. Their most recent common ancestor was the ancestral stem-caniform miacid, which lived about 40 million years ago.  Most of the “ancestors” mention here are actually evolutionary dead ends that have little to do with modern bears or dogs.

First of all Hemicyon was not an intermediary between dogs and bears. The Hemicyon family was actually a branch of the bear lineage. Unlike the true bears, it was digitigrade and was probably a cursorial predator like wolves are today. The Hemicyon family lived between 11 and 17 million years ago, and it has left no living descendants.  That is, it is in no way an intermediary form between dogs and bears.

The author mentions “Cynoelesmus,” probably meaning Cynodesmus. My guess is this discrepancy comes from a poor cut-and-paste job, but although Cynodesmus was a primitive dog. It is not the ancestor of all living dogs. The ancestor of all living dogs was Leptocyon. Leptocyon was once considered part of Cynodesmus, but it is no longer.

The other two ancient creatures mentioned in the opening have nothing to do with bears or dogs.

“Daphoneus,” which refers to Daphoenus, a type of Amphicyonid. Amphicyonids were are really spectacular sister family to the canids, which had traits in common with both bears and dogs but really behaved more like big cats. This family has nothing to do with evolution of dogs, except that this is a sister lineage that went extinct.

Simocyon was actually something even a little bit cooler. It was not a dog. It was not a bear. It wasn’t even in the lineage of either family. Instead, it was a genus of leopard-sized animals much more closely related to the red panda. In case you were wondering, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas. Giant pandas are actually a primitive form of bear. Red pandas are their own thing. Modern red pandas are the only species in their family known as Ailuridae. Millions of years ago, there were several species of red panda, and Simocyon was actually a large predatory red panda. Like the modern red panda, Simocyon had a thumb formed out of its sesamoid bone.  Giant pandas have this thumb, and it was thought to connect both modern species of panda.  Now, we know that the giant panda, which is a true bear, actually evolved its sesamoid thumb in parallel to the red panda. The red panda lineage evolved this trait so they could more easily climb in trees, while the giant panda evolved it to hold bamboo.

So that entire introduction to chow chow history is simply wrong. It may have been correct carnivoran paleontology at one point, but it also seems that the originators of this theory just went around looking for creatures that sounded like they might be fossil dogs that could be found in Asia.  “Cyon” does mean dog, but it doesn’t always refer to dogs in scientific names. Remember that there is a primitive whale the unfortunate name of “Basilosaurus,” which is in no way related to any lizard or dinosaur, and the raccoon family is called “Procyonids,” even though they aren’t that closely related to dogs.

Again, I don’t know why this theory is so popular, except that it can be used as a defense for breeding more and more bear-like features into chow chows than they had when they first came into the West. It’s also a way of making chows so much more super-special than the were before.

But it really makes chow fanciers look silly to anyone who has ever looked closely at carnivoran evolution.

It’s a fun story, but it’s not based in reality.

And when you get the paleontology this wrong, then virtually nothing of value can be trusted until the error is corrected.

Chows are cool as primitive dogs. They don’t need all the malarkey.




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By the middle to late part of the nineteenth century, naturalists began to try to classify animals systematically. They didn’t always get it right, but they generally paid close attention to morphology.

However, they often had a hard time classifying animals that had features that were sort of aberrant. It was easy to see that lion was a cat and that a polar bear was a bear.

But how do you classify creatures that appear to have features of several different species?

Have you ever heard of the term “bear cat”?

It was a term that I always heard as a child, and I thought it referred to a mythical animal.

I later learned that this term actually was nothing more than an archaic term for the binturong, a type of arboreal civet that is native to Southeast Asia.

But I didn’t know that the term actually had some scientific currency beyond it being another name for the binturong.

However, one can see how this term was used in Brehm’s Life of Animals (1896):

Three remarkable animals of southern Asia constitute the second suborder of the Bears, whose members we will call Cat-like Bears (Ailurinae). They are a transitional form between the Large Bears and the Civets, and are distinguished by their somewhat Catlike paws, having slightly retractile claws, and the soles of which are covered with hair.

The first place in this suborder belongs to the Ailuropus (Ailuropus melanoleucus), which was discovered by [Father Amand] David about twenty years ago, and which on the one hand resembles the Large Bears, on the other the Panda. He is of smaller size than the common Brown Bear, measuring about sixty inches from the tip of his snout to the end of his tail. His feet, which have hairy soles, are wide and short,and he does not walk on the entire sole. The snout is short, and the head proportionately broader than that, of any other Beast of Prey. His fur is dense, Bear-like and of a uniform white color, with the exceptions that a ring around the eyes, the ears, the front legs, and a band extending from them up to the shoulder, the hind feet and the tip of the tail, are black.

Next to nothing is known about his life in the wild state. He inhabits the most inaccessible mountainous forests of eastern Tibet.

The representative of the second species of this suborder, the Panda Bear or Red Cat-like bear (Ailurus fulgens),

in a certain way holds the middle position between the Ailuropus and the Binturong. On account of his thick, soft fur, his body appears clumsier than it is; the head is covered with long hair and is very broad and short, and the snout likewise. The long tail is pendent and bushy, having the appearance of being very thick; the ears are small and rounded; the eyes are small; the legs are short; the feet have soles thickly covered with hair, and the walk is semi-plantigrade; the toes are short and the claws are strongly curved. The size of the Panda is about that of a large Tom-cat. The fur is dense and long, of a vivid and lustrous dark red on the upper surface, with a light golden tinge on the back, where the hairs are tipped with yellow; the under surface and the legs are lustrous black, with the exception of a dark chestnut transverse band on the front and sides; the tail is of a Foxy red, indistinctly ringed with narrow bands of a lighter hue.

The Panda is a native of the southeastern parts of the Himalayas, where it is found at an elevation of from six thousand to twelve thousand feet. Little is known about the life in the wild state of this beautiful, dainty creature. It lives in the woods, either in couples or in families, mounts on the trees, and makes its home in their hollows or in clefts of rocks; it spends much time.on the ground in its search for food. It is an almost exclusively vegetable feeder, but is also said occasionally to plunder nests and eat insects.

The last species of the suborder is Southern Asiatic the Binturong (Arctitis binturong), exceeds the Panda in size; his length is from fifty-four to sixty inches, nearly half of this length being taken up by the very long, prehensile tail. The body is stout, the head thick, the snout elongated; the legs short and thick; the feet five-toed, with tolerably strong, somewhat retractile claws; the soles naked. The body is clothed in a thick, rather rough, loose fur. The ears are short, rounded and surmounted by tufts. Thick, white whisker-hairs on both sides of the snout surround the face as with a halo. The color is a dead black, merging into a grayish tinge on the head and into a brownish shade on the limbs.

The Binturong is a native of Borneo, Java, Sumatra, the Malayan Peninsula, Tenasserim, Aracan, Assam and Siam. Its life in the wild state is also very little known. It is nocturnal in habits, leading a principally arboreal life, and is slow in its motions. It is omnivorous, disdaining neither small mammals, birds, fish, worms, and insects, nor fruit and other vegetable food. Living as it does in lonely forests and hidden from view, it is seldom seen; its voice is said to find utterance in a loud howl. Though wild and fierce in disposition, it soon becomes tame when taken young and is as gentle as it is playful(pg. 264).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the anatomically incorrect depiction of a binturong walking around like a bear with a long tail.

Brehm's binturong

You’ll note that all of the scientific names given for these animals are still the ones in use today. The “Ailuropus”  is the giant panda, and the only difference between its common name given here and the one used today is that it is now Ailuropoda melanoleuca instead of Ailuropus melanoleuca. The name means “black and white cat foot.”

It is also interest that the term “panda” originally referred to the red panda, not the giant one.  At the time Alfred Brehm was writing this book, we knew next to nothing about giant pandas. We just barely knew they existed, and there were even people who seriously contested their existence.

Because these animals all have morphologies that are relatively similar to each to each other, it would have made sense for nineteenth century naturalists to try to put them all in one family.

But it’s been known for a long time that binturong has nothing to do with either panda.

As noted earlier, the binturong is an arboreal civet, and its prehensile tail makes it the only mammal in the Old World with this feature. Civets are in the family Viverridae. Viverrids are feliform Carnivorans, which means they are more closely related to cats than they are to bears, dogs, or raccoons.

And that means that classifying the binturong with two pandas is quite erroneous.

But that alone would not make Brehm’s proposed family of Ailurinae incorrect.

For most of the twentieth century, the classification of the two species of panda was hotly contested. The two species possess a very similar adaptation for eating bamboo. Their radial esamoid bones have become almost like thumbs, which allows them to grip bamboo for ease of eating. The fact that both animals eat a lot bamboo also suggests a common ancestry. They also have similar scent glands, genitalia, and dentition.

And so it was assumed that the two were related.

But this caused something of a problem.

The red panda is superficially more like a raccoon, and it was long suggested that it belonged in the raccoon family (Procyonidae). The giant panda is more like a bear, so there was a huge debate as to whether the giant panda belonged with the bears or the raccoons.

At one time, it was thought to have too few chromosomes to be a true bear, so it was not classified with them.

It was only in the 1980’s, that it was found that giant panda chromosomes were actually fused bear chromosomes. It has been determined that the giant panda is actually an early offshoot of the bear lineage, and its closest relative is the spectacled bear of South America.

And that means that the giant panda is a bear.

It also destroys Brehm’s Ailurinae.

If giant pandas are bears and binturongs are civets, then there is no family that inlcudes red pandas with these two species.

So what is a red panda?

It’s still a raccoon, right?

Well, no.

It looks a lot like a raccoon, probably because it has a lot of primitive caniform features, which are also found in raccoons.

In 2000, a mitochondrial DNA study found that it was very hard to place the red panda within Carnivora, other than it was clearly located in the clade Musteloidea. a clade that includes skunks and stink badgers (Mephitidae), the weasel family (Mustelidae), and the raccoon family (Procyonidae).  Because its exact position within that clade is not clear, the red panda is classified in its own family called Ailuridae.

Ailuridae is pretty similar to Brehm’s Ailurinae, but it’s not nearly as exotic.

The red panda’s scientific name means “shining cat.” In English, we’ve sometimes called it a “fire fox,” which is where the browser got its name.

But it’s not either of those things.

It’s its own thing.

Systematically classifying organisms has truly been revolutionized with the ability to examine and analyze DNA.

In the late nineteenth century, all they had was morphology.

And morphology led them astray.

Morphology alone fails to take into account the power of convergent and parallel evolution, and that’s why we molecular techniques are superior at resolving phylogenetic questions.

It’s also why I take everything I read about paleontology with a grain of salt.

In really old organisms, all we have is morphology.

And if it’s led us astray with animals we can actually examine alive, imagine what it’s done with things like non-avian dinosaurs.




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From Richard Lydekker’s Royal Natural History: Mammals (1894) :

A large number of the mammals from the highlands of Tibet belong to types quite unlike those found in any other part of the world; and in no case is this dissimilarity more marked than in the animal which may be termed the particoloured bear (Aeluropus melanoleucus).

This strange animal, which has been known to European science only since the year 1869, is of the approximate dimensions of a small brown bear, and has a general bear-like aspect, although differing from all the other members of the family in its parti-coloured coat. The fur is long and close, with a thick, woolly under-fur. The general colour is white, but the eyes are surrounded with black rings, the small ears are also black, while the shoulders are marked by a transverse stripe of the same colour gradually increasing in width as it approaches the forelimbs, which are also entirely black, as are likewise the hind-limbs. This peculiar coloration communicates a most extraordinary appearance to the creature; and without knowing more of its natural surroundings it is difficult to imagine the object of such a staring contrast. The tail is extremely short; and the soles of the feet are hairy.

In addition to these external characteristics, the parti-coloured bear also presents some peculiar features in regard to the skull and teeth. Thus the skull is remarkable for the great width of the zygomatic arches and the enormous development of the longitudinal ridge on the upper-surface of the brain-case, both these features indicating greater power of jaw than has at present been found in anyother member of the entire carnivorous order. Then, again, the teeth differ both in number and form from those of all the other Ursidae. Instead of the forty-two teeth, characteristic of the typical bears, the parti-coloured bear has but forty teeth, all told; the diminution in number being due to the absence of the first pair of premolar teeth in the lower jaw. As regards form, the molar teeth are distinguished from those of other bears by their shorter and wider crowns; this being most marked in the first molar of the upper jaw, which is broader than it is long. The second upper molar tooth agrees, however, with the corresponding tooth of other bears in being longer than the one in front of it. The pattern formed by the tubercles on the crowns of these teeth is exceedingly complex, and approaches to that obtaining in the panda, among the raccoon family, to be noticed in the next chapter.

The parti-coloured bear is reported to inhabit the most inaccessible districts of Eastern Tibet, and to be of extremely rare occurrence. Unfortunately we are at present quite ignorant of its habits, although it is said to feed chiefly on roots and the young shoots of bamboos, and to be entirely herbivorous (pg. 32-33).

The animal described here is, of course, the giant panda. However, the range of the giant panda is not Tibet.  Their range is restricted to the Sichuan province of China, and another population can be found in the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi province.  Their range was originally more extensive, but their reliance of undisturbed thickets of bamboo and human hunting pressures meant that the only giant pandas left were in these remote regions.

The confusion with Tibet may come from the other panda– which is actually not a close relation.

The red panda or “firefox” (Ailurus fulgens) has been classified as a bear and as a raccoon. Currently, it is placed in its own family, Ailuridae. The two species both eat a lot of bamboo, but the red panda is not as specialized to living off of bamboo as the ursine giant panda. The two species have several morphological structures in common. Most notably, the two possess the “thumb” that is nothing more than an extension of the radial sesamoid bone.

Because of these similarities, the two were believed to be close relatives, but genomic analysis has found that the giant panda is a bear. Its fewer chromosomes were found to be fused bear chromosomes. And mitochondrial DNA analysis has found that the red panda is a unique species that is closely related to the raccoon family, the weasel family, and the skunk family– but it is such a unique lineage that it cannot be classified as belonging to any of these families.

Red pandas in recent centuries have been more widespread over the mountainous regions of Asia. Their range includes much of the Himalayas, including both Tibet and the Qinling Mountains, where a population of giant pandas can be found. But its range also extends south to Burma and includes both Indian and Nepal. IUCN considers it to be a threatened species. It is in no way as endangered as its supposed black and white cousin.

My guess is confusion with the red panda caused Lydekker to make the claim that these animals are Tibetan. Considering how little anyone knew about giant pandas at the time, it is a fair mistake.

Lydekker also didn’t know that the panda is one of the oldest bear species. It is most closely related the tremarctine bears– only one of which still exists, the South American spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). The oldest giant panda fossil has been dated to 2.6 million year ago. However, this pygmy giant panda has been classified as a different species, though it was likely ancestral to the modern giant panda. ( “Pygmy giant panda” is quite the oxymoron, don’t you think?)

The giant panda is a truly unique species, but it shows the real dangers species can face if they become too specialized to a single niche and a single food source. If one’s fortune is hitched to only a very specific star, what happens if that star should burn out?

But this specialized animal has managed to survive 2.6 million years.

If only it could survive us.


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