Giant Panda Versus Red Panda

The term "Giant Panda" probably suggests to you that there exist other panda "sizes". In fact, the word "panda" was for many years used only to describe the "other" panda, which is much more common, the Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens, literally, "cat, shining", or "shining cat", with the adjective in front of the noun, as is the custom in the English language), and which isn't even a bear but belongs to the same superfamily, Musteloidea, to which belong the weasel, the skunk and the raccoon (the Musteloidea are also distantly related to the seal).

1-Day Panda Tour & Chengdu Highlights

The Red Panda is a cute little bugger that indeed looks like it could be a cross between a very small reddish bear and a raccoon. It is apparently the only surviving species, fuglens, within its genus, Ailurus. Much later, the world at large became aware of the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally, "cat foot, particolored"), whose Latin designation almost suggests that it is in the same genus if not in the same family as the Red Panda. However, to distinguish the two animals, one must go a level higher in the animal classification scheme, namely, to the family level, and there one sees that while the Red Panda belongs to the family Ailuridae, the Giant Panda belongs to the family Ursidae, which is the family to which the true bears belong (the "Ursus" constellations (commonly written Ursa), i.e., Ursus major (the "Big Dipper") and Ursus minor (the "Little Dipper") are also called, respectively, the Big Bear and the Little Bear).

In this article, having now firmly made the all-important distinction between racoons and bears, as it were, we will henceforth cease to refer to, or even think about, the family Ailuridae, so when the word "panda" crops up in the following, the reader should be aware that we are speaking solely of the "bear panda", i.e., the Giant Panda belonging to the family Ursidae.

There are in fact two Giant Pandas, the archtypical black and white subspecies native to Sichuan Province, A. m. melanoleuca (where the "A. m." stands for Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and the lesser-known, dark-brown and light-brown subspecies native to the Qinling Mountain area of Shaanxi Province, A. m. qinlingensis. The latter subspecies has a smaller cranium but larger molars.

It is believed that the Giant Panda developed its coloration as a form of camouflage, which would suggest that brown, rather than black, blends in better with the forests of the Qinling Mountains (military camouflage uniforms also vary, depending on whether they are to be worn in a jungle or in a desert environment).

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