Millions of years ago, Red Pandas used to roam the hills of East Tennessee. Now, Zoo Knoxville leads one of the most successful captive breeding programs of Red Pandas in the world. Lauren Lyon, a PhD candidate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in collaboration with ETSU researchers, Steven Wallace and Andrew Joyner, recently published two chapters in the book, Red Panda. Her chapters focus on the conservation of Red Pandas and the reconstruction of Red Panda fossils that were discovered in Tennessee. In her research, Lyon has been able to work closely with Zoo Knoxville and the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee. Observing the Zoo Knoxville’s captive breeding program helped aid Lyon and Wallace in the reconstruction of the Red Panda fossils at the site.
“Red pandas are part of our Tennessee heritage,” Lyon said. “They roamed here long ago living much like raccoons do today, and perhaps this long and storied history is part of why Zoo Knoxville is so successful breeding red pandas today. Locals should take pride in knowing what a beautiful animal once lived in their backyard and that we have even more discoveries to make.”
In other countries, researchers have only been able to identify a few teeth and jaws from Red Panda fossils. At the Gray Fossil Site, researchers recovered the two most complete fossils in the world, a male that is 75% complete and a female that is 98% complete. Lyon’s publications focusing on Red Panda conservation are used by biologists, zoo staff, and conservationists all over the world.
“Close proximity both to the zoo and the national park have been critical. UT’s ecology and evolutionary biology department has funded my doctoral research and allowed me to be in close proximity to the zoo. Because UT has done such a great job with departmental funding, this is research that will be continuing and that you will be hearing about in the near future!” said Lyon.
Lyon’s research with the Appalachian Red Panda is important for understanding Red Panda evolution. It helps researchers piece together how we ended up with this endangered bamboo eating Red Panda in Asia that is well known today. Moving forward, Lyon is working on her dissertation, which focuses on climate change and its effect on endangered species in the Smokies and Appalachian Mountains. She is working with several conservation agencies and hopes to spread awareness on this pressing issue.
“I want people to know that they can make a difference even with minimal effort,” Lyon said. “It’s up to us to preserve these animals for our future. It is very easily an achievable goal that we can all benefit from, but to start we need to simply raise awareness.”
-Story by Sarah Berry