Scientists believe they have helped settle a debate about one of the world's most endangered (and sweetest) animals: the red panda. New genetic evidence suggests that there are actually two different types of red panda, each with a unique evolutionary history.
Red pandas ( Ailurus fulgens ) are the only mammals of their species, although they are closely related to raccoons, skunks and weasels. They are much less related to giant pandas than their common name and implies the love for bamboo whereby the giant pandas are part of the bear family. Scientists have long known that there are two different groups of red pandas that are believed to be separated by the Nujiang River, which crosses Burma, China and Thailand. These groups were called Himalyan Red Panda ( A. Fulgens Fulgens ) and Chinese Red Panda ( A. Fulgens Styani ).
Historically, the two populations were considered subspecies, which means that they are physically so different that they can be distinguished from one another and live far enough away that they rarely reproduce. However, subspecies are usually still able to have viable offspring when they mix, while animals of different species are genetically more different and usually have sterile offspring when they can mate (as with everything in life, however) his exceptions ).
The Himalayas and the Chinese red panda certainly look different if you look closely. The Himalayan red pandas have whiter fur faces, while the Chinese red pandas have tails that are more intense red and pale tail rings that are whiter. The differences between the two groups, which some scientists have argued, suggest that they are not only subspecies, but completely separate species. Until recently, however, the authors of this study did not really have the tools to closely examine the genetics of both groups.
In their new publication published on Wednesday in Science Advances, the researchers reconstructed and analyzed DNA from blood, muscle and skin samples from 65 red pandas in the wild, which belonged to a total of seven populations. They found "considerable genetic divergence between the two species, which provides the first genomic evidence for the differentiation of the species".
Among other things, the team found evidence that the groups have followed different paths of development to get where they are today – differences that could have a real impact on their chances of survival.
For example, the red pandas in the Himalayas may have seen three sharp declines over time, a phenomenon known as a bottleneck while having a relatively small population boom. Chinese red pandas, on the other hand, appear to have had fewer bottlenecks and longer population growth. As a result, Chinese red pandas are genetically more diverse, while Himalayan red pandas are at higher risk of harmful mutations that can plague very low diversity populations.
The team also found evidence that the geographical separation between the two groups does not exist, at least not the Nujiang River, since the panda populations living on both sides of the river appeared to be genetically similar (other studies dealing with the skulls of red pandas suggested the same thing). Instead, they theorize that the actual barrier that separates these two groups is the Yalu Zangbu River, which flows largely through Tibet and lies north of the Himalayas. However, further research is needed to confirm this theory.
The authors hope that their results will better guide and motivate conservation efforts for the red pandas. In total there are only about 10,000 red pandas worldwide, but the situation may be worse for the red Himalayan panda.
“In particular, the population of the red Himalayan pandas extends across southern Tibet in China, Nepal. India and Bhutan, which urgently need cross-border international cooperation to protect this declining species, ”the authors wrote.