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Two Red Panda Species

Red pandas might actually belong to two different species, New Scientist reports. Previously, the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) were classified as subspecies, it notes.

Researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Yibo Hu examined the genomes of 65 different red pandas from across China, Nepal, and India. That data in conjunction with Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA began to provide genetic evidence for species divergence among red pandas and suggests the species distribution boundary line is the Nujiang River.

As they report in Science Advances, Hu and his colleagues traced different demographic histories between the populations, which they estimate diverged about 200,000 years ago. Namely, they note that Chinese red panda (A. styani) underwent two population bottlenecks and one large population expansion, while the Himalayan red panda (A. fulgens) underwent three population bottlenecks and one small population expansion. The researchers note A. fulgens also has very low genetic diversity, high linkage disequilibrium, and high genetic load.

These findings could have implications for conservation efforts, New Scientist adds, noting that both red pandas species are affected by habitat loss and climate change. "To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity," Hu tells it.