Qizai, a rare Qinling panda, displays a striking brown & tan coat that really stands out next to his more formally “dressed” chums at the Shaanxi Wild Animal Research Center. Qizai is only the seventh Brown Giant Panda recorded in the last 25 years.
Qizai belongs to a new subspecies of panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis, that was established quite recently (2005) though so-called Brown Pandas have been noted in the isolated Qinling Mountains since the mid-1980s. It's estimated that only 200 to 300 Qinling pandas currently live in the wild, and the vast majority of these show only small patches of brownish hair mixed in with their black fur.
Qinling pandas also differ from the predominant panda species, Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca, by virtue of their slightly smaller skulls and proportionately larger molar teeth.
Scientists aren't sure why extraordinarily colored specimens of the Qinling panda occasionally occur. One theory focuses on possible environmental factors, noting that the Qinling Mountains are home to brown variants of other creatures such as the Golden Takin (Budorcas taxicolor bedfordi), an endangered goat-antelope.
Another theory posits that the gene for brown & tan fur is recessive, and the occurrence of these unusual pandas is an indication of inbreeding in the small and isolated Qinling panda population.
It's worth noting, however, that after the first recorded Brown Giant Panda was brought to the Foping Giant Panda Reserve in Shaanxi Province, "Dan-Dan" gave birth in succession to three normally-colored cubs. Unfortunately, none of Dan-Dan's colorful offspring lived past their childhood, er, cub-hood.
Qizai's story is similar: in November of 2009 he was discovered at the age of two months (right) in the company of his mother, a black & white Qinling Panda. Since then, Qizai has thrived in captivity and next year he'll be old enough to mate and luckily for him, pandas are colorblind. (via People's Daily Online, images via Xinhua/Zhang Bowen)