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Red Pandas vs Giant Pandas: Differences and Similarities

Written by GavinUpdated Jan. 7, 2021

South central China is home to giant pandas and red pandas. These two "pandas" are quite different animals. Here we compare 1. their names, 2. appearances, 3. taxonomies, 4. diets, 5. habitats, 6. behaviors, 7. histories, and 8. where to see them in China.

Giant pandas are well-known to everyone as a WWF emblem or Chinese national symbol. They are quite cute and interesting, and they are Chengdu's number one tourist attraction.

Red pandas on the other hand are smaller and far less recognized and appreciated. But they are also interesting animals for their appearance, behavior, and playfulness. They too are strikingly beautiful.

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1. Panda Species' Names

Why Are Pandas Called Pandas?

Giant panda and bambooBamboo is all pandas' main food. "Panda" means 'bamboo-eater'.

It is interesting that red pandas and giant pandas are both called "pandas" in English. The reason for this is that in Nepal, the Nepalese name for red pandas was nigalya ponya. The words mean 'eater of bamboo' since red pandas eat bamboo. Westerners started calling nigalya ponyas "pandas" i.e. 'bamboo-ers' due to difficulties in pronouncing Nepalese. At that time, in the Indian subcontinent there were no giant pandas.

In the early 20th century, wildlife researchers and taxonomists discovering the giant pandas in China thought they were related to the red pandas in Nepal since they also eat bamboo and share some similar unusual anatomical features such as a part of their wrist that acts like an opposable thumb. So they started to be called "giant pandas" Previously, giant pandas were called "mottled bears" because it was thought that they were a species of bear. The word "mottled" describes their white and black coloring.

"Bear Cats": Pandas' Chinese Names

Red pandas may have black legs and eye patches like giant pandas, but they look more like racoons or cats than bears.

  • Red pandas: Chinese: 小熊猫 xiǎoxióngmāo /hsyao-hsyong-mao/ 'small bear-cat'
  • Giant pandas: Chinese: 大熊猫 dàxióngmāo /dah-hsyong-mao/ 'big bear-cat'
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The Chinese name for the animals isn't panda. Panda isn't a Chinese name. Most Chinese call giant pandas "daxiongmao" (dàxióngmāo) or simply "xióngmāo" ("bear cat"). The name xiongmao was originally used for red pandas, but in the 20th century, since Chinese thought that giant pandas were related to the red pandas, daxiongmao ("big bear cat") became the name for giant pandas and xiaoxiongmao ("small bear cat") became their common name for the red pandas.

It is interesting that both animals were called "bear cats." Their behavior, diet, habitat and way of life are so similar that it was natural for Chinese to think that they are similar animals. In China, their present ranges overlap.

Red pandas behave in the same funny, slow, and clumsy way that giant pandas do. When they walk, their gait and posture are similar. Like giant pandas, they are curious and seemingly intelligent.

2. Pandas' Differing Appearances and Characteristics

  Appearance Weight Length of body
Red panda: raccoon-like, with reddish-brown fur ~5 kg (11 lb) ~50 cm (20 inches)
Giant Panda: bear-like, with snowy white and black fur 80–150 kg (176–330 lb) 120–180 cm (47–71 inches)

About 30 red pandas = 1 giant panda! Thirty red pandas that weigh 5 kg (11 pounds) weigh as much as one full grown male giant panda that can weigh as much as 150 kg (330 pounds). So red pandas are much smaller. They look like big house cats with long thick tails.

Red Panda Physical Characteristics

The red panda looks like a kind of squirrel, but when the obtrusive tail is not in the way or is not so brightly colored or long, it looks more like a strange cat or a red raccoon.

Red pandaRed pandas have dark patches under their eyes and long tails.

Instead of black patches over the eyes like giant pandas have, many red pandas have white patches. There are actually distinct breeds of red pandas depending on their area. The ones in the Indian subcontinent are different from the Chinese breeds.

Red panda tails can vary greatly from 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 inches), and some are more bushy than others. Red pandas (or lesser pandas) have long, fluffy striped tails like a raccoon, and their facial features and their diets are similar to those of the giant pandas. In general, the red panda bodies from the tip of the nose to where the tail begins measures 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 inches), so on some animals, their tails are as long as their bodies!

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Giant Panda Physical Characteristics

giant panda characteristics

Giant pandas look quite different to red pandas. Viewed from the side, they have big bear-like bodies with short tails. Their tails measure about 15 cm (6 inches).

Not all giant pandas are black and white. There is a rarer sub-species that live in the Qinling Mountains (Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis) that are brown and tan colored with smaller skulls. The brown coloring perhaps camouflages them better, but the somber coloring make the animals look forlorn and less appealing than their better-preserved black-and-white cousins.

See more on Giant Panda Characteristics.

3. Panda Taxonomy Differences

  • Giant pandas: Ursidae animal family. They are classified as bears.
  • Red pandas: Ailuridae animal family. They are classified as the only only extant (not yet extinct) species in their family.

At one time, Western taxonomists classified the red pandas as a kind of raccoon. They do look very much like red racoons except for the long cat-like tails. Then, they were thought to be similar to giant pandas and were classified as similar to them. Since they share the name "panda," many think red pandas belong to the same animal family as giant pandas. But taxonomists now say that red pandas are in a family of their own (Ailuridae) and that giant pandas are in the bear (Ursidae) family.

It's interesting to note, despite the Chinese name, both panda species are dog-like carnivores (Caniformia) rather than cat-like carnivores. Red pandas and giant pandas share the suborder Caniformia with dogs, wolves, bears, weasels, skunks, and aquatic pinnipeds (seals etc.). They're both canines rather than felines.

However, both pandas have 'cat' in their Latin species names. Giant pandas are Ailuropoda melanoleuca or 'black-and-white cat-feet'; red pandas are Ailurus fulgens or 'shining cats'.

4. Differences in Panda Diet - 99% Bamboo + Other Foods

Giant pandas can exist almost entirely on bamboo. Sometimes even 99 percent of their diet is bamboo! Usually though, they also eat some insects and other food. This works out to 12 to 38 kilograms (26 pounds to 83 pounds) of bamboo stems and leaves each day. In the wild, they may also eat fruit, mushrooms, grasses, and insects, and when they can, they eat meat.

In captivity, they like eating apples, carrots, other fruits and vegetables, and specially prepared panda cakes. See What Giant Pandas Eat - Bamboo, Fruits, and Panda Cakes

On the other hand, red pandas are more like weasels and naturally eat a more varied diet. About a third of their diet is composed of small mammals, grubs, fruits, eggs, tender grasses, flowers, and insects, but red pandas eat a lot of bamboo too (about 2/3 of their diet).

5. Pandas' Overlapping Habitat and Range

Wolong Panda CenterBoth pandas prefer mountain forest areas.
  • Red panda distribution: Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China. In China, they live mainly in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. They can live between 2,200 and 4,800 meters (7,200 and 15,700 feet).
  • Giant panda distribution: Giant pandas are now only in China. They are in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi in mountains at an elevation of between 1,300 meters to 3,600 meters (4,200 to 12,000 feet).

Giant pandas and red pandas live in similar habitats in mountains. The red pandas have a greater tolerance for colder temperatures, so they range higher than do giant pandas. Red pandas are high altitude animals.

In prehistoric times, both of their territories were much larger, and there were more places where they coexisted. Now the only places where they are found together in the wild are in the Sichuan mountains.

Giant Panda Habitat

Giant panda habitat

Giant pandas once ranged even into Myanmar, Guangxi, Guangdong and northwards to Beijing. But now they are found only in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi Provinces.

As the graphics above show, they are now mainly in the Min mountains near Chengdu. It is thought that 44% of the wild pandas reside in 27 panda reserves in this long mountain range that extends west and north of Chengdu.

Near Xi'an in the Qinling Mountains, about 250 pandas are thought to still survive. These Qinling pandas have long been isolated from the other pandas in the south. Most of them are black and white pandas, but some are the brown and tan breed or mixtures of the two breeds.

More about their ranges and habitat are in Giant Pandas' Habitat - Bamboo Forest in Western China and Giant Pandas' Habitat Map

Red Panda Habitat

Red pandas are more widespread than giant pandas in eastern Asia. It is thought that there are between 10,000 to 20,000 red pandas left in the wild. There are perhaps 3,000 to 7,000 in China, 5,000 to 6,000 in India, and few hundred in Nepal.

Red pandas are more widespread southwards, and their range extends through Yunnan and Guangxi into Myanmar. However, there are none in the Qinling Mountains near Xi'an.

Red pandas are mountain dwellers and don't like hot weather. In China, they generally live between 2,200 and 4,800 meters (7,200 and 15,700 feet) altitude and inhabit areas of moderate temperature between 10 and 25 °C (50 and 77 °F) with little annual change. They prefer mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests that have thick patches of bamboo undergrowth that they can eat.

In the Himalayas, the red pandas are found in altitudes of between 1,800 and 4,000 meters. These high mountain slopes tend to be covered in deciduous hardwood forest.

In China, their favorite forests are old-growth forests with old big trees, and much of these kinds of forests have been logged. They are left only in some mountain areas in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet now.

6. A Comparison of Panda Behaviors

Giant pandaBamboo is pandas' main food.

Though the two animals are classified very differently, their behaviors are similar in some ways. Since they both eat mostly bamboo, they need to eat a lot of it each day, up to 15% to 30% of their body weight! So this constant eating takes up much of their lives.

They both use opposable wrist digits to grab and hold the bamboo leaves and stems and strip the bamboo stalks. It is quite an unusual behavior among animals.

They also both move unusually slowly since bamboo is a low-energy food. They can be called "low energy" animals that are sleepy and lethargic, but they can both move faster than sloths.

Here is a surprising panda speed fact: Giant pandas can sprint at 32 kilometers an hour (20 miles an hour). The fastest human runners can put on a burst of speed of about 37 kph (23 mph) in comparison. So the fastest pandas can run almost as fast as the fastest people, and they run faster than most people!

Here is another surprising red panda speed fact: Red pandas run faster than giant pandas and people! Though they are such little animals, but at top speed some can run at 38 kph or 23 mph.

Read more about Giant Pandas' Behavior - What Do They Do All Day?

Panda Life Cycle Differences: Giant Pandas Compared to Red Pandas

  Cubs per Litter Mature At Cubs per Lifetime Life Expectancy
Red Panda: 2–4 2 years 10 8–10 years
Giant Panda: 1–2 4 years 5 16–20 years (up to 37 years in captivity)
Baby pandaA giant panda cub

Both animals also breed and reproduce comparatively little. A giant panda litter is only one or two cubs, and their gestation period is 3 to 5 months. Usually only one cub per litter will survive in the wild. They are born in late summer. It is thought that the average panda female in the wild can only have about 5 cubs in total.

See more about the Giant Pandas Life Cycle and Baby Pandas - Their Growing Process

Red pandas reproduce faster. They mate in late winter (January to March) and give birth to 2–4 cubs every June/July. The cubs take 2 years to mature.

7. Giant/Red Pandas' Differing Histories

Giant pandaGiant pandas are sometimes called a national treasure of China.

Giant pandas first came into the Western "consciousness" during the Nixon Detente years of the 1970s when pandas became a Chinese national symbol overseas and scientists started to declare that the pretty, large teddy bear animals were on the brink of extinction.

China tried to protect its lovely giant pandas. Most panda conservation work has involved protecting their habitat, making laws to punish hunters and smugglers, and captive breeding.

Their efforts were successful. On September 5th, 2016, IUCN announced that giant pandas had been removed from their endangered list. Now they are described as a "vulnerable species." In 1988, wild panda numbers were about 1,114. In 2014, the wild giant panda population was 1,864!

See more about giant panda conservation in How China Protects Giant Pandas.

The Red Panda Population Is on the Decline

How China Protects Giant Pandas - Pandas Now NOT Endangered!Pandas get lots of attention and support, but red pandas get comparatively little.

Red pandas are decreasing in the wild. The IUCN has them on their endangered species list. The number of red pandas in the wild is decreasing. The IUCN estimates that there may be only 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Red pandas are only active at night, so it is difficult to get a firm count. There could be many more hidden away. There are at least 5 times more red pandas left than giant pandas.

It helps their survival that they are spread across a large range and that they are isolated in separate regions. So if a plague, disaster, or poaching kills off red pandas in one country or region, they can still survive in other places. Pandas however are now restricted to rather small regions of China, so they are more vulnerable to mass extinction.

8. The Top 4 Places to See Giant Pandas and Red Pandas in China

Giant panda base map

There are four major panda bases around Chengdu. Choose from them according to what you want to see and do.

Place Location Access Pandas Activities Visit Crowds?
Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center Chengdu City Very easy 50 Seeing pandas ½ day Very crowded
Dujiangyan Panda Base Dujiangyan - 1½ hours from Chengdu Easy 20 Volunteer program 1 day Quiet
Wolong Panda Center Wenchuan county - 3 hours from Chengdu Hard 30 Volunteer program, hiking in panda habitat 2 days Quiet
Bifengxia Giant Panda Base Ya'an - 3 hours from Chengdu Hard 20 Volunteer program 2 days or more Quiet

Chengdu's Closest Panda Base

Giant Panda Breeding Center in ChengduYou can see many giant pandas at Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center.

Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base is the most easily accessible panda base in China. Though the focus is on giant pandas, they also have red pandas.

It is only about 40 minutes from Chengdu by private vehicle, and it is good for those with limited time such as they are doing an airport stopover excursion taking advantage of the 144-Hour Visa-Free Transit Policy. Traveling with a private guide is helpful for better access and to avoid the crowds.

Read more on The Best Places to See Giant Pandas in China and Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries.

City Zoos with Pandas

For those who can't take a trip to Chengdu, the zoos in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Hong Kong offer opportunities to have a quick look at the adorable giant pandas.

The zoos are easy to access but are often fully-packed. Our guides know how to help you avoid the worst of the crowding.

Learn More about Panda Behaviors Firsthand

Wolong Red Panda Keeper Program Volunteers are feeding red pandas in Wolong near Chengdu.

You and your children can help care for and raise the pandas and increase the panda population: See How to Volunteer with Giant Pandas in Chengdu. These half-day or day panda care activities are memorable experiences for children.

Our The Wolong Red Panda Keeper Program allows you to feed a group of cat-sized red pandas without a fence in between you. You'll learn first hand about the interesting differences between the red panda and its giant panda namesakes. Of course you can watch and help pandas too.

During this special tour, a professional panda keeper may be with you for the duration of your placement. He or she will guide and assist you through the experience.

Get Expert Help Finding the Best Panda Experience for You

Get close to giant pandas in ChinaGet close to giant pandas in China through China Highlights tours.

We can take you to a breeding center around Chengdu where your guides, and the center staff will explain the conservation and protection programs for both animals.

Chengdu is where the panda bases are, and there are many other things to do in the area too such as see astonishing historical places and great natural beauty. We can assist you in your tour of the region. Chengdu is also known for great Sichuan cuisine, and we can take you to local restaurants with authentic local cuisine.

See our most-selected panda itineraries below for inspiration:

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