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Second record of the Red Panda in North America

Click here to see what we found on Sept 14th!

Dr. Wallace's rendering of what this animal might have looked like.

Tedford and Gustafson (1977) reported the first occurrence of the Red (lesser) Panda from the 3-4Ma (early Blancan) Taunton Local Fauna of the Ringold Formation in Washington State based on an upper right first molar (RM1). A recent discovery of that same tooth (RM1) from the 4.5-7Ma (late Miocene - early Pliocene) Gray Fossil Site of eastern Tennessee marks only the second record of this animal in North America.

The molar was discovered in late January (2004) by Larry Bristol (ETSU Paleontology Coordinator). Dr. Wallace and Dr. Xiaoming Wang identified the specimen as a member of the Ailuridae (close to Parailurus) based on the inflated and labial directed metaconule, a character diagnostic to the group. In addition to the upper molar, an isolated canine has been recently assigned to the same animal. Wallace and Wang published their findings with a description of a new species of Eurasian badger (also from Gray) in the Journal of Nature (Wallace and Wang, 2004).

Red Panda Molar"It's the dream of every paleontologist to discover a new species at some point during his or her career and to have the opportunity to name it," said Dr. Steven Wallace, a paleontologist at East Tennessee State University and lead author of the article. "But we already have two!"

According to Wallace, Pristinailurus bristoli - named after ETSU's Paleontology Coordinator Larry Bristol who discovered the first specimen of the new red panda - is the earliest and most primitive panda so far recorded. (see family tree below - from Wallace and Wang, 2004).

Although the giant panda is essentially a bear, red pandas are more closely related to raccoons, Wallace explains. In addition, living red pandas, which are slightly smaller than this new fossil species, are only found in the Himalayas and have a highly specialized diet of bamboo.

To date, there has been no evidence of bamboo at the Gray Fossil Site, suggesting that the new species could survive on other types of food prior to arriving in the southern Appalachians. Once here however, it may have utilized a fossil form of River Cane, a bamboo native to East Tennessee, for food.

For more information of red pandas click here, and for neat movies of pandas, click here.

Added Note: Since the publication of these initial records, more material has been discovered at the site, including a potential skeleton eroding from one of the banks...stay tuned for updates!

References

Tedford, R.H., and Gustafson, R.P., 1977, First North American record of the extinct panda Parailurus: Nature, v. 265, p. 621-623.

Wallace, S.C., and Wang, X., 2004, Two new carnivores from an unusual late Tertiary forest biota in eastern North America: Nature, v. 431, no. 7008, p. 556-559.