Newly discovered differences in red panda genes reveal that there may be TWO different species – and it may affect conservation efforts
- A new study sheds light on genetic differences between regional red pandas
- It suggests that red pandas in Sichuan and the Hiamalyas can be different species
- The findings may also have implications for conservation efforts
- Crossing different species produces sterile offspring
Genetic differences between two types of red panda can be much larger than previously thought.
According to a new study published in Science Advances by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the eye-catching animals – which are actually more closely related to raccoons and weasels – can actually be two different species.
Scientists say that the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens), which were previously thought to be subspecies, actually show a number of substantial differences in their genetic composition.
The red pandas from the Himalayas, Ailurus fulgens (photo) is one of the two regional varieties of red panda that have been investigated by researchers
The comparison, using the genomes of 65 red pandas, discovered that haplotypes – a group of DNA inherited from a single parent – exhibited 50 percent fewer genetic mutations in single-letter nucleotides that form larger DNA strings.
As noted by New scientist, the study also showed that there were no common variants in Y chromosomes between the red pandas in the eastern Himalayas and those in Sichuan, China.
As a result of those differences, scientists suggest that the two species parted about 200,000 years ago without significant genetic transfer between them.
In addition to clarifying the classification of the red pandas, the research can also help predict the likelihood of each species to strengthen the populations.
Himalayan pandas have, due to three different grim populations, less genetic diversity than Chinese red pandas.
As a result, scientists say that red pandas from the Himalayas are much more susceptible to genetic diseases that plague low-diversity species.
Lack of genetic diversity can hamper efforts to grow populations of red pandas that have been decimated by human development, climate change and destruction of their natural habitats
Red pandas are currently still listed as endangered by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN), which last reviewed the animals in 2015.
According to the IUCN, the populations have fallen by no less than 50 percent over the past 18 years.
Among their main threats are the continuous human development of their natural habitats, climate change and environmental degradation caused by mining.
The findings can also have a significant impact on conservation efforts.
Although animal subspecies can still be crossed, genetically disparate species are likely to produce sterile offspring, anything but the failure to support populations.
Before scinetist can confidently say that there are two different types of red panda, they say it will be necessary to study animals found in Bhutan and northern India.