Everybody’s favorite valentines at the WNC Nature Center this year were Phoenix and Leafa. The pair of Red Pandas is the WNC Nature Center’s newest attraction, and quite possibly its cutest. They came to Asheville from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Executive director Chris Gentile said the discovery of a fossilized panda skull while excavation was conducted in Gray, Tennessee, encouraged him to include live specimens of the bears in the Nature Center’s collection.

The Gray Fossil Site was discovered by geologists in May 2000. Gentile said they were investigating unusual clay deposits that turned up during a Tennessee Department of Transportation highway project to widen State Route 75 south of its intersection with Interstate 26, less than 75 miles from Asheville.

In 2002, the fossilized skull of a previously undiscovered species of panda was found at the Gray Fossil Site, and named for Larry Bristol who discovered it. Bristol’s Panda lived about 6 million years ago. It was about twice the size of today’s Red Panda, but was adapted to life on the ground, spending little time in trees.

“State Route 75 was realigned to protect the find by order of Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, and a museum and research center at the dig operated by East Tennessee State University opened in August 2007. Along with unearthing Bristol’s Panda, digging at the site to date has also yielded the world’s largest tapir fossil find as well as a complete skeleton of Teleoceras, and ancient species of rhinoceros,” Gentile said. A tapir is a large, herbivorous mammal, similar in shape to a pig, with a short, prehensile nose trunk. 

“We’re developing a new area of our site we’re calling ‘Prehistoric Appalachians,’ and that’s where our Red Pandas live,” Gentile said.

The Nature Center commissioned the creation of a life sized sculpture of Bristol’s Panda, the extinct Southern Appalachian species. Like the Giant Panda and the Red Panda, bamboo made up a large portion of Bristol’s Panda’s diet. A single adult Red Panda may eat several stalks of bamboo per day. To satisfy their appetite for fresh bamboo, the Nature Center maintains a half acre plot of this rapidly growing species of grass directly behind the Red Panda exhibit.

Animal curator Erin Oldread said when the Nature Center was moved to acquire the Red Pandas, they worked with the Species Survival Plan (SSP) program

“The SSP looks at the population each year, and how many offspring they previously had. Based on this, they make recommendations about breeding and where animals should go. Lincoln Park Zoo was renovating their panda habitat, and SSP knew that the Nature Center was building theirs, so it was recommended that the Red Pandas be sent to Asheville,” Oldread said.

Phoenix and Leafa have had four litters of cubs in the past, but at the age of ten Leafa is nearing the end of her reproductive years. Since Red Pandas can breed to the age of 12, and because another litter is not recommended, Leafa has a Deslorelin birth control implant that will prevent her from going into a heat cycle this year. The hope is that the Nature Center will receive a breeding pair of Red Pandas in the future.

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