Red Pandas Get Their Moment

I very much enjoyed the cartoon panda movie, give or take maybe one just barely over-long and overblown chase scene. So did my 13-year-old daughter, which probably matters more, given the plot. Turning Red, it seems to me, is New Wave to Pen15‘s Punk Rock. Not a criticism — I like New Wave.

As of this writing, it’s got a 95% Tomatometer score (from 235 critics) and 73% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Jess Wilson relayed one already notorious outlier pan in her blog Diary of a Mom: “Then there was Sean O’Connell, Managing Director of Cinema Blend, who said, ‘Some Pixar films are made for a universal audience. Turning Red is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.’ He was lambasted for the review, which Cinema Blend took down and reassigned and for which both he and the site eventually apologized.”

Guess that happens sometimes these days; I have mixed feelings. But as a never-menstruating beyond-middle-aged person of overwhelmingly if not entirely European descent, I still have no idea what Mr. O’Connell was fretting about — and not only because Disney movies presumably strive for global reach. I suspect Eastern (read: non-Christian) religion, adolescent-girl rebellion and the snuck-in slogan “my panda, my choice” may have something to do with it.

There’s a boy band called 4*Town (with five members!) in the movie; given the BTS obsession of eight-year-old Nat Levin-Senderovsky in Gary Sheyntgart’s Covid-in-Trumpland novel Our Country Friends, my bedtime reader this week, this almost adds up to an out-of-nowhere boy-band revival in my personal solipsistic field of vision. Finneas and Billie Eilish wrote 4*Town’s three quasi-K-Pop songs, including one that proclaims “Had friends and I’ve had buddies yes it’s true, but they don’t turn my tummy the way you do.” Which, despite the stomach-turning part, is apparently not meant as a backhanded compliment.

“Nobody Like U” — also featuring the oddly antiquated (or maybe just nostalgic?) brag “got a big boombox and a new CD” — somehow managed not to chart in Billboard‘s Hot 100 this week; Turning Red‘s soundtrack, which admittedly seems to be approximately 79% “score” or “instrumental” plus the Mandarin “U Know What’s Up 王者的驕傲” on some versions, entered the Billboard 200 way down at #187. After months of chart domination by the Encanto soundtrack, and considering how catchy 4*Town’s tunes are, this is rather dumbfounding. Then again, my friend Sara Sherr tells me she’s “already seeing karaoke tracks for it online,” and chart whisperer Chris Molanphy points out that “Encanto had a slow start, too.” So we’ll see.

But anyway, what I really want to talk about here, seeing how they’re finally having their moment in the pop-culture sun, is red pandas! Which are technically more reddish-brown/rust/cinnamon/burnt-sienna/(mahogany/bittersweet/redwood?)-tinted (i.e., my favorite color category since I was old enough to have one) than red, per sé. In case you didn’t know, these adorable critters (also called lesser pandas) are more closely related to raccoons than to giant pandas.

There are two species of the small ones — one each native to the east Himalayas and southwest China. Until recently they were classified as subspecies, but genetics argued otherwise. “Researchers in China analyzed the DNA of 65 wild red pandas,” BBC News reported in 2020. “This revealed two separate species which went their own separate ways after populations were divided by a river about 250 thousand years ago.” The Nujiang (or Salween) River, to be precise.

The journal Science Advances, which published the Chinese Academy of Sciences study, noted these differences: “The face coat color of the Chinese red panda is redder with less white on it than that of the Himalayan red panda. The tail rings of the Chinese red panda are more distinct than those of the Himalayan red panda, with the dark rings being more dark red and the pale rings being more whitish.” But since they can interbreed, Adam Moolna of explained at the time, scientists who opt for “biological” rather than “phenotypic” taxonomy might consider them mere subspecies after all.

And either way, they’re endangered. Which, as Moolna enumerates, “raises lots of tricky questions: would we be right to genetically isolate the Himalayan red panda for purity, but risk poor genetic health and a greater risk of extinction? Or should we maximize its survival chances with selective aid of Chinese red panda DNA, even if that means conserving a less ‘pure’ Himalayan ‘species’? Is maintaining a genetic divide between ‘species’ more important than between ‘subspecies’?” Seems there are no easy answers.

Science did not always concern itself with such ethical quandaries. Wood’s Natural History, September 1893 (68 years after the animal was apparently first “described” by European zoologists): “There are few of the Mammalia which are decorated with such refulgently beautiful fur as that which decks the body of the WAH, or PANDA, as it is called. This beautiful creature is a native of Nepal, where it is known under the different names of Panda, Chitwa and Wah — the last-mentioned name being given to it on account of its peculiar cry…It is generally found among the trees that grow near rivers and mountain-torrents, but does not seem to occur in sufficient number to render its beautiful fur an object of commercial value. This is more to be regretted as the coat of the Panda is not only handsome in appearance, but is very thick, fine, and warm in texture.” In other words, too bad there aren’t more red pandas that we could poach and thereby turn into lovely winter overcoats. How charming.

Giant pandas, for their part, were first brought to the attention of Westerners, namely a French missionary named Armand David, in 1869. But the carcass that Tibetan hunters had presented to David wasn’t enough to land a spot in J.G. Wood’s book — and the author doesn’t seem to have any need to distinguish between the two types, since he only knows about one.

“There are two pandas,” Gardner Soule reiterates in his 1963 cryptozoology classic The Maybe Monsters, pointing out that not too long ago the big black-and-white ones were mere rumors, at least West-wise. “The common panda, the smaller of the two, is reddish-brown, foxlike in appearance, and about the size of a small raccoon. It is a recognized member of the raccoon family. The giant panda, called the white bear in China, grows to the size of the American black bear, and lives only along the border between western China and Tibet.”

He recalls two of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons bagging a specimen that wound up mounted in a Chicago museum in 1929, then explorer (not to mention explorer’s widow) Ruth Harkness bringing home a live baby named Su Lin in 1936. To this day, cryptid fans — conspiracy theorists of the animal kingdom — use the giant panda as evidence that something mysterious might still be out there. After all, here’s a mammal as big as a bear that wasn’t seen at all by Western eyes until four years after the Civl War ended, wasn’t witnessed in its natural habitat until World War I, then wasn’t hunted down until Wall Street was about to crash or captured alive until the Hoover Dam was done. And it lives in the exact snowblinding mountain range where abominable snowmen (alias yetis) are alleged to hang out!

Back when I was growing up, as far as I could tell, both giant and lesser pandas were file-foldered in the raccoon family, Procyonidae — along with cacomistles, coatimundis, ringtails, kinkajous, and several species of an obscure arboreal South American mammal called the olingo which I forget if I ever heard of before now. But molecular study of giant panda DNA eventually concluded they were bears after all, or at least closer to bears than any other branch on the phylogenetic tree of life. This despite being herbivorous, where other bears are pretty much all omnivores and polar bears honest-to-Nugent carnivores — though maybe confusingly they’re all still classified as carnivores, bamboo-munching giant pandas included.

In the title essay of Stephen Jay Gould’s 1980 collection The Panda’s Thumb, the great nature writer circumvents the raccoon question entirely, calling giant pandas “peculiar bears” mainly for their vegetarian eating habits, and even more so for what seems to be the animal’s almost human-like opposing thumb or sixth finger (if humans had six fingers), but which is in actuality a uniquely elongated “bone called the radial sesamoid, normally a small component of the wrist.” Whatever its skeletal origin, it helps provide the dexterity needed to handle and manipulate bamboo stalks. The red panda has a similar digit, albeit more rudimentary, used for a similar purpose — a coincidence of convergent evolution.

So red pandas, which supplement their own bamboo-heavy diet with occasional flowers, fruits, nuts, eggs and small animals, are classified as carnivores as well. Nowadays they get their own family (Ailuridae, also including several extinct relatives) within the super-family Musteloidea, which also ropes in not only the aforementioned raccoon kin, but families devoted to skunks and to weaselish creatures (minks, sables, ermines, fishers, otters, ferrets, even badgers and wolverines which strike me as way more ferocious.)

Also, it may or may not be true that certain young boy-band-swooning Chinese-Canadian women have been known to shape-shift in and out of being red pandas upon reaching puberty. Tune in here for more valuable and timely lessons in mammal taxonomy.

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