Rosie McCall, Newsweek, February 27, 2020
The red panda may be two distinct species, according to research published in Science Advances. By examining the red panda’s entire genome, scientists have been able to shed light on the animal’s tricky family history.
A team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed DNA from 65 red pandas from seven separate populations and determined two phylogenetic species that separated some time around 22 million years ago. One, Himalayan red pandas (Ailurus fulgens fulgens), can be found in southern Tibet and Nepal. Another, Chinese red pandas (Ailurus fulgens styani), can be found in southeastern Tibet and northern Myanmar.
“Since 1902 the red panda has been classified as two subspecies,” Professor Yibo Hu, who co-authored the paper, told Newsweek.
“However, the subspecies or species classification has remained controversial for a long time because of the geographical inconsistency in morphological characteristics similarity for traditional subspecies or species classification.”
According to Hu, whole-genome sequencing, as performed in this study, is the most comprehensive for assessing genetic differences. It enabled them to identify different trajectories within the two species’ evolution—in particular, periods of population expansion and population bottlenecks. The latter describes a period when there is a sharp reduction in population size.
Through expanding our understanding of the species (plural), Hu and others hope the knowledge will boost conservation efforts by enabling people working in the field to tailor their methods according to the species and avoid any missteps. For example, knowing that there are two species could prevent interbreeding between species in captivity.
“Interbreeding between species may harm the genetic adaptations already established for their local habitat environment,” said Hu. “This finding will help construct clear red panda pedigree in captivity.”
According to Hu, the Himalayan red panda needs greater and more urgent protection because it has lower genetic diversity and a smaller population size.