Sympatric Giant Panda & Chinese Red Panda

Updated: 21 June 2021

The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and Chinese Red Panda (Ailurus styani) belong to the mammalian order Carnivora.  However, unlike classic Carnivora which are famous for eating meat, the two pandas are vegetarians that specialize in eating bamboo. 

Although both pandas are native to Asia, their ranges are mostly separate. The two species occur together only in Sichuan Province, China, on the following 4 mountain ranges: Liangshan, Qionglai, Minshan and Xiangling (Wei et al 2000). In these mountains, the Giant Panda and Red Panda share the same habitats and bamboo plants.

Ecologists use the word sympatry to describe the situation where 2 species occur in the same area. The word allopatry is used to describe the opposite situation: where 2 species occur in separate geographic areas. 

In this report, we review studies of sympatric Giant Panda and Red Panda in Sichuan Province, China, and summarize the ecological differences between these two bamboo-specialists.

Red Panda eating bamboo leaves after reaching them via the branch of a non-bamboo tree (PexelsCCOFlickr).

Dietary separation

The two species differ greatly in size: the larger Giant Panda weighs 65-110 kilograms while the Chinese Red Panda (hereafter called simply “Red Panda”) weighs 3.7-6.2 kilograms (Johnson et al. 1988; Roberts and Gittleman 1984). 

Both pandas feed mainly on bamboo the entire year. Occasionally they will sample other foods, but bamboo comprises 99% of the diet of the Giant Panda, and 98% of the diet of the Red Panda (Wei et al. 1999). 

From midsummer to October, the Red Panda differs from the Giant Panda in that it adds a variety of arboreal fruits to its diet, including Prunus, Rubus, Rosa, Sorbus, Ribes, and Sabina squamata, a fir (Wei et al. 1999).

Both pandas feed on the same species of bamboo, but specialize in eating different parts of the bamboo plant. The Giant Panda feeds more frequently on bamboo stems, while the Red Panda feeds more frequently on bamboo leaves (Johnson et al. 1988; Wei et al. 1999). 

For example, in the Xiangling Mountains, Wei et al. (1999) found the following bamboo parts in the annual diets of the two pandas: Red Panda (90% leaves, 9% shoots), Giant Panda (55% stems, 35% leaves, 10% shoots).

The mandibles of the Giant Panda are more strongly developed than those of the Red Panda, which is correlated with the dietary differences mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Because the Red Panda specializes in eating bamboo leaves, it does not need the stronger mandibles of the stem and shoot-eating Giant Panda (Zhang et al. 2007).

Giant Panda eating a bamboo stem. Photograph by Brian Petty (Pexels)

Microhabitat separation

Compared to the Giant Panda, the Red Panda frequents microhabitats with higher densities of shrubs, fallen logs and tree stumps (Wei et al. 2000; Zhang et al. 2004). The Red Panda climbs up on these structures to reach high-growing bamboo leaves, which it then nips off the stalks to eat (Johnson et al. 1988; Wei 1999; Zhang et al. 2004).

In contrast, the Giant Panda bites off whole stems from the bamboo plant, and then holds the stems to bite off the leaves (Wei et al. 1999). It also bends growing bamboo stems over with a forepaw and crops leaves off the top (Johnson et al. 1988). 

In microhabitats selected by Red Panda, the height of bamboo plants averages shorter than in microhabitats selected by Giant Panda, apparently because the foliage leaves of shorter bamboos are easier for the Red Panda to access (Zhang et al. 2004).

The Giant Panda frequents more level terrain, usually with a slope of less than 10-20% (Reid and Hu 1991; Wei et al. 1996, 2000; Zhang et al. 2006; Qi et al. 2009). In contrast, the Red Panda frequents steeper slopes (Wei et al. 2000; Zhang et al. 2004; 2006; Qi et al. 2009).

The association of the Red Panda with steeper slopes might be explained by its preference for sites with better access to higher-growing bamboo leaves. Wei et al. (2000) note that “on steeper slopes, rhododendrons have longer branches within the leaves of bamboo, and fallen logs are more likely to intersect the leaf layer,” making it easier for the Red Panda to reach bamboo leaves.

However, other explanations are also possible. For example, because the Red Panda is smaller than the Giant Panda, they might need the higher density of shrubs on steeper slopes to better hide from predators.

On the other hand, some researchers believe that the Giant Panda’s preference for gentler slopes is based on energy conservation. The Giant Panda’s rate of energy intake is only marginally higher than its energy expenditure, so avoiding steep slopes helps it reduce using energy (Schaller et al. 1985; Zhang et al. 2004).


Giant Pandas visit roads more frequently than Red Pandas (Qi et al. 2009). One possible explanation is that roads through wooded areas increase the amount of forest edge, which offers the Giant Panda more food than forest interiors.  This may also explain why the Giant Panda prefers to forage on the edges of bamboo patches (Qi et al. 2003; Schaller et al. 1985; Yu et al. 2003).


Hu Y, Thapa A, Fan H, Ma T, Wu Q, Ma S, Zhang D, Wang B, Li M, Yan L, Wei F.  (2020) Genomic evidence for two phylogenetic species and long-term population bottlenecks in red pandas. Science Advances 6 (9): eaax5751.  DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax5751

Hu Y, Thapa A, Wei, F. (2020) Ailurus fulgens (Himalayan Red Panda) and Ailurus styani (Chinese Red Panda). Trends in Genetics 36(8), 624– 625. 

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Information about this Review

The author is: Dr. Paul D. Haemig (PhD in Animal Ecology)

The proper citation is:

Haemig PD 2021 Sympatric Giant Panda and Red Panda. ECOLOGY.INFO 4.

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