Besides making them cute as a button, the dark and white patches on the Giant Panda’s fur actually serve an evolutionary function. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Long Beach, the patches help the pandas camouflage across all seasons since they don’t hibernate. The dark patches around the eyes are actually distinct on an individual basis and aid in communication.
“Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult,” said lead researcher Dr.Tim Karo From University of California, Davis.
Life in black and white
Black and white marking aren’t at all common but you can still find them in some species of zebras, snakes, fish, cows or, of course, penguins. In each animal, these markings serve a different purpose or rarely overlap. For instance, the zebra selected black and white stripes to confuse mosquitoes and avoid being bitten as often. For birds, the markings typically aid in mating. Killer whales have a black back with white chest and sides which help the animal in predation by making it difficult for other species to spot it. The California kingsnake mainly comes in shades of black with white markings, giving it an eye-catching coloration which wards off predators who think it’s poisonous (it’s not).
Panda colouring has always been difficult to pin down, though. For one, it’s the only bear in its family that has such a distinct pattern.
Their Kung Fu was good
To get to the bottom of things, the researchers got creative. During their investigations, they treated each part of the panda’s body as an independent area and compared the lighter and dark tones of these different regions with those from 195 carnivore species and 39 related bear species. One by one, they determined the function of each area always keeping in mind the various ecological and behavioral cues.
This analysis suggests the panda’s face, neck, belly, and rump are white to provide protection against predators during the winter while the dark arm and legs hide it in the shade, as reported in Behavioral Ecology.
You might find this sort of camouflage rather weird or even inadequate but given current circumstances, this seems the best the panda could come up with. What I mean by that is the panda eats around 30 to 40 pounds of bamboo and poops three dozen times each day. Ain’t nobody got time for hibernation. Brown or black bears hibernate during the winter when it snows but once the slumber is over, its fur blends great with the forest and vegetation. Like pandas, polar bears don’t hibernate either but they basically live in a white hell so their fur’s coloring can be easily explained. The panada’s habitat spans many seasonal changes, though.
“This really was a Herculean effort by our team, finding and scoring thousands of images and scoring more than 10 areas per picture from over 20 possible colors,” said co-author Ted Stankowich, a professor from California State University, Long Beach. “Sometimes, it takes hundreds of hours of hard work to answer what seems like the simplest of questions: why is the panda black and white?”
The cute dark patches on the head and around the eyes, however, are not meant for camouflage. It’s likely that the black spots around the eyes and ears help make the panda look more intimidating to a competitor, no matter how preposterous that may sound. The dark eye patches may also serve for individual recognition.
Previously, scientists used to think the bear’s colouring was due to some degree of relatedness with raccoons but a DNA analysis debunked this claim. Previous hypotheses also suggested the panda’s dark patches around the eyes acted like sunglasses to protect the eyes. But there is “no compelling support for their fur color being involved in temperature regulation, disrupting the animal’s outline, or in reducing eye glare,” the researchers wrote.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.