Why Are Big Pandas Black And White?


The large panda’s black and white markings are distinctive within the animal kingdom so the explanation for this explicit colour sample has remained mysterious — till now.

Lengthy Hui, a large panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) on the Vienna Zoo. (Credit score: RobertG / CC BY-SA… [+] 3.0.)

RobertG / CC BY-SA 3.0

A brand new examine printed by a collaboration between researchers from the College of California, Davis and the California State College, Lengthy Seaside, scored and in contrast fur coloration in hundreds of pictures of bears and different terrestrial carnivores. Based mostly upon this evaluation, the analysis crew experiences that the large panda’s distinctive black-and-white markings have two features: camouflage and communication. The panda’s white physique markings assist it cover in snow, while its black physique markings assist it cover in shade. The panda’s distinctive facial markings are used to speak with different pandas.

Pandas aren’t your common bear

As coloration and colour sample goes, most mammals are drab brownish or greyish to match their background, making them actually fairly boring to have a look at — aside from a couple of outstanding creatures, comparable to zebras and big pandas, which possess sharply contrasting black-and-white colour patterns. The rarity and beautiful noticeability of such coloration has lengthy fascinated scientists: why did such distinctive colour patterns evolve and what’s their practical significance?

Final yr, a crew of researchers from the College of California, Davis, found that zebras stripes’ polarize gentle and thereby cut back biting flies’ skill to dwelling in on these animals for a meal (ref). This yr, the zebra analysis crew collaborated with colleagues on the California State College, Lengthy Seaside, to analyze the evolutionary cause for big pandas’ distinctive colour sample.

Ecologically talking, big pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca (which interprets to “black and white cat-foot”), are a mere shadow of what they as soon as have been. They’re now are restricted to a extremely fragmented geographic vary between 2000–3000 meters (6600-9800 toes) in elevation in south-central China, however traditionally, they occupied a a lot bigger and extra steady vary all through most of southern and jap China. Additional, panda fossils point out they as soon as lived as far south as northern Myanmar and northern Viet Nam and northward almost to Beijing. Though their closest family are carnivores, pandas are specialised on a weight loss program of low-quality bamboo. Apart from moms with cubs, grownup pandas are solitary animals and are identified to roam extensively by low- and mid-elevation forests at varied occasions of the yr.

Male big panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) “Tai Shan” eats bamboo on the Smithsonian Nationwide… [+] Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. (Credit score: Fernando Revilla / CC BY-SA 2.5.)

Fernando Revilla / CC BY-SA 2.5

Regardless of their giant physique dimension — grownup pandas weigh between 86 and 107 kilograms (190-235 kilos) — they’re a menu merchandise for number of animals, starting from the comparatively small dhole, Cuon alpinus, a local Asian wild canid, to giant predators comparable to leopards, Panthera pardus, Asiatic black bears, Ursus thibetanus, and brown bears Ursus arctos, and previously, wolves, Canis lupus, and tigers, Panthera tigris.

However pandas’ unusual colour sample has been the function that has most fascinated individuals. As a result of pandas’ markings are distinctive, it has not been potential to immediately examine them to a different, equally marked species to know the evolutionary forces that drive and keep this sample. All through the years, scientists proposed plenty of hypotheses for why big pandas have advanced their distinctive coloration:

  1. panda coloration advertises it’s an aggressive animal that’s not to be trifled with
  2. the panda’s white fur acts as camouflage in opposition to a snowy background
  3. the panda’s darkish fur retains warmth in chilly environments
  4. the darkish patches across the panda’s eyes cut back daytime glare
  5. the contrasting colour sample on the panda’s face is used to speak with different pandas

Hiding in snow or shade, or intimidating rivals

“Understanding why the large panda has such putting coloration has been a long-standing downside in biology that has been tough to sort out as a result of nearly no different mammal has this look, making analogies tough,” mentioned lead writer Tim Caro, a professor within the division of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis.

Based mostly upon the belief that selective pressures drive colour sample and coloration, the researchers in contrast and scored the colour of particular physique areas in hundreds of pictures of 195 land-dwelling carnivore species and 39 different bear species.

“This actually was a Herculean effort by our crew, discovering and scoring hundreds of photographs and scoring greater than 10 areas per image from over 20 potential colours,” mentioned examine co-author Ted Stankowich, a professor at CSU Lengthy Seaside, in a press launch.

By evaluating colour for every physique (Technique 1; Determine 1) and facial (Technique 2; Determine 1) area and correlating that to that species’s explicit ecology and social behaviors, the researchers have been capable of assess all proposed hypotheses as potential evolutionary explanations for panda coat colour sample.

“The breakthrough within the examine was treating every a part of the physique as an unbiased space,” Professor Caro identified.

The crew’s evaluation revealed that totally different areas of the large panda fur coloration serve totally different functions. The white fur protecting nearly all of the animal’s physique — its face, nape, again, flank, stomach and rump — is customized for camouflage in opposition to a snowy background, while its darkish shoulders and legs present crypsis in shade.

The crew concluded that panda coloration is in the end pushed by panda ecology: as a result of they eat such a poor weight loss program that they by no means handle to retailer sufficient physique fats to permit them to hibernate, pandas should always for prowl for meals. Since they’re at all times searching for their subsequent meal, pandas are by no means capable of molt their fur shortly sufficient so it matches their background, as most different carnivores can do. Thus, they advanced a “compromise” colour sample and coloration consisting of black-and-white fur.

“That is another evolutionary technique to smaller carnivores just like the ermine and arctic fox which have winter and summer time coats,” write the authors of their examine. “Apparently, some wolverines (Gulo gulo), one other comparatively giant species that doesn’t go into winter torpor, and that travels lengthy distances throughout a number of habitat sorts, generally has a black and white physique that resembles the sample of the large panda.”

US Nationwide Park Service / Public Area.

Apparently, the researchers didn’t discover any proof to counsel that panda’s fur colour would possibly play a task in both temperature regulation or disruptive coloration.

In keeping with the examine, the markings on the panda’s face have a unique operate: communication. The darkish ears convey a warning to would-be predators that this animal can defend itself while the darkish patches across the eyes could assist pandas acknowledge people of their very own species, and so they may additionally play a task in risk shows. It’s attention-grabbing to notice that the darkish areas across the pandas’ eyes aren’t related to diminished glare.

Based mostly on this examine, the analysis crew proposed one other working speculation for the panda’s outstanding pelage: the large panda’s physique coloration supplies it some camouflage in both snowy or shadowy habitats, whereas its facial markings are used for communication (Determine 2).


Tim Caro, Hannah Walker, Zoe Rossman, Megan Hendrix, Theodore Stankowich (2017). Why is the large panda black and white? Behavioral Ecology. Revealed on-line on 28 February 2017 earlier than print. doi:10.1093/beheco/arx008

Learn extra:

Kenneth H. Britten, Timothy D. Thatcher, and Tim Caro (2016). Zebras and Biting Flies: Quantitative Evaluation of Mirrored Gentle from Zebra Coats in Their Pure Habitat, PLoS ONE, 11(5): e0154504 | doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0154504

Why Are Big Pandas Black And White? | @GrrlScientist


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