“The Red Panda Loses Most of Its Heat Through Its Face”

Especially in the cold season, Red Pandas seem more active.
“Small panda eating in the snow III” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In his new book “Die Sinne der Tiere” (“The Senses of Animals”), Prof. Dr. Stephan Frings from the University of Heidelberg in Germany presents the multifaceted sensory world of animals. One chapter is devoted to the sense of warmth — and, in the light of this, also to the Red Panda. This animal species, which prefers winter temperatures, is a perfect example of the thermal balance in mammals.

Red Pandazine: You write in your book that the body temperature of the Red Panda is 37 °C. What factors must interact for it to maintain this temperature?

Prof. Dr. Stephan Frings: For temperature regulation, mammals have a number of factors at their disposal. These include behavioral patterns (staying in the sun vs. shade), vegetative factors (shivering as a warming factor, panting as a cooling factor), and metabolic factors such as increased sugar metabolism for warming.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Frings

“When the Red Panda curls up to sleep, it isolates its face.“

Does the tail of the Red Panda also play a special role in its thermal balance?

Prof. Dr. Frings: Most likely, it is. Because the red panda loses most of its heat through its hairless — and thus poorly insulated — facial skin, especially the skin of its nose. When it curls up to sleep, it insulates its face with its tail and thus prevents cooling.

The Red Panda prefers a cool environment. Is keeping Red Pandas in warmer regions problematic?

Prof. Dr. Frings: The Red Panda’s habitat is not so different in terms of temperatures from zoos located in temperate latitudes like Europe. But of course: thermoregulation always works only within a narrow tolerance range, which is the range to which the animals are adapted. And especially too high temperatures pose great problems for the animals, because cooling down is often more difficult to achieve than warming up. On hot summer days, they will probably also have problems in European zoos.

A sleeping Red Panda isolates its face with its tail.
Photo: “Sleeping firefox” by Raphaël Quinet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Red Panda gets the energy for its “heating system” from the relatively nutrient-poor bamboo. Is this the reason why it has to eat such a large amount of it and additionally sleeps and rests a lot?

Prof. Dr. Frings: I suppose that this is the case. They eat not only bamboo, but the digestion of plant material just takes a long time and that’s when it’s best to sleep …

Can the Red Panda’s body heat attract predators?

Prof. Dr. Frings: This could apply predominantly to the young. Their body heat could betray them to predators such as snakes. Adult animals betray themselves — I think — rather by their striking color than by their body heat.

Reading recommendation
Die Sinne der Tiere

Prof. Dr. Stephan Frings heads the Department of Molecular Physiology of Animals at Heidelberg University’s Centre for Organismal Studies in Germany.

His book Die Sinne der Tiere is published by Springer Spektrum, Berlin, Heidelberg.