Which adorable animal is known among experts as a "living fossil," meaning they have no living relatives?

And the answer: red panda.    
Photo credit: Mathias Appel.

Recently immortalized in the popular imagination thanks to Pixar’s Turning Red, there are fewer than 10,000 endangered red pandas left in the wild, and no close living relatives. Their nearest fossilized ancestors, the Parailurus, lived between 3-4 million years ago.

Also known as the lesser panda, red bear-cat and red cat-bear, the red panda has taken on many names over the years. Interestingly, red pandas were actually given the name “panda” first—roughly fifty years before the black and white variety. The first official discovery of the red panda dates back to 1825 (forty-eight years before the discovery of the giant panda), when Alfred Duvaucel found and sent a zoological specimen of a red panda to Frédéric Cuvier, the first zoologist to describe the animal. After examining a red panda, Cuvier reported that it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen, and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, meaning “cat,” and fulgens, meaning “fire-colored” or “shining.” (I don’t know why we didn’t stick with “fire-colored cat”!)

The first red panda was discovered in the Himalayas, but it is native to other regions of China, Nepal, India, Bhutan and Burma. Most months out of the year, red pandas are solitary creatures, and prefer to roam the high mountain elevation by themselves. During the breeding season, though, red pandas will come together to find mates and raise cubs. Cubs are born blind (and, shockingly, gray), and weigh only 4 to 5 ounces. What’s more: red panda mothers make for impressive caretakers, as they are the sole care providers until the cubs are old enough to care for themselves at about 6 to 8 months old.

Did you know?

September 17 marks International Red Panda Day! Celebrate the longevity of these adorable creatures by learning more about them, or see how to get involved with conservation efforts here.

Check out the red panda in action below.

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