Newly discovered differences in red panda genes reveal there may actually be TWO different species – and it could affect conservation efforts

  • A new study sheds light on genetic differences between regional red pandas
  • It suggests red pandas in Sichuan and the Hiamalyas may be different species 
  • Findings may also have implications on conservation efforts
  • Interbreeding different species produces sterile offspring

Genetic differences between two types of red panda may be much greater than previously thought.  

According to a new study published in Science Advances by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the eye-capturing animals – which are actually more closely related to raccoons and weasels –  may in fact be two different species.

Scientists say the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens), which were previously thought to be subspecies actually show several substantial differences in their genetic makeup.

The Himalayan red pandas, Ailurus fulgens (pictured) is one of the two regional varieties of red panda studied by researchers

The comparison, which used the genomes of 65 red pandas, found that haplotypes – a group of DNA inherited from a single parent – showed 50 percent fewer genetic mutations in the single letter nucleotides that make up larger strings of DNA.

As noted by New Scientist, the research also showed that there were no common variants in Y chromosomes between the red pandas found in the eastern Himalaya Mountains and those found in Sichuan, China.

As a result of those differences, scientists suggest that the two species split about 200,000 years ago in the absence of significant genetic transfer between them.

In addition to illuminating the red pandas’ classification, the research may also help forecast the each species likelihood of bolstering populations.

Himalayan Pandas, as a result of three different stark populations declines, have less genetic diversity than Chinese red pandas.

As a result, scientists say the Himalayan red pandas are much more susceptible to genetic diseases that plague species with low diversity.

Lack of genetic diversity may hinder efforts to re-grow populations of red pandas which have been decimated by human development, climate change, and destruction of their natural habitats

Red pandas are still currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which last assessed the animals in 2015. 

Populations have declined by a staggering 50 percent over the last 18 years according to the IUCN.

Among their major threats are continued human development of their natural habitats, climate change, and environmental degradation caused by mining.

The findings may also have a significant impact on conservation efforts.

While subspecies of animals are still able to be interbred, genetically dissimilar species will likely produce sterile offspring, all but guaranteeing failure to bolster populations.

Before scinetist can confidently say there are two distinct species of red panda, they say it will be necessary to study animals found in Bhutan and northern India.

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