We found out why giant pandas are black and white: here’s how

Unlike many species of flamingos, most of the 5,000 species of mammals are brown or dull gray. But there are a few well-known and interesting exceptions, most notably zebras, skunks, and killer whales.

Perhaps the most famous of them is the giant panda. We already had an initial idea of ​​why their markings exist, but we finally wanted to confirm the reason for their mysterious pattern.

When looking at a giant panda up close in a zoo, it is a striking combination of a white bear with black front and shoulders and hind legs, and an unusual face with black fur around the eyes and ears. By comparing these different parts of the body with the coloration of other carnivores (officially pandas are classified as carnivores, contrary to popular belief) and also with bears, we already learned that white-backed carnivores are found in snowy environments, and dark-colored ones. Legs and shoulders are found in shady habitats. This suggests that the fur was an adaptation to be camouflaged in different environments.

At present, the giant panda is confined to the isolated forests of western China, where there are relatively few predators. But we needed to make sure the camouflage was effective against the giant panda’s previous predators — tigers, leopards, Asian black bears and wild dog — since the days they moved through China to Vietnam.

The breakthrough came when we reached out to our colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yonggang Ni and Fuen Wei. They work with giant pandas in the field and have rare photos of wild giant pandas. Crucially, the images of bears in their natural habitat were taken at a distance from the camera.

We used state-of-the-art image analysis techniques to prove that unique colors really do work to hide giant pandas.

By matching the reflectance (the amount of light reflected) from a giant panda’s fur to natural objects in the background, we discovered that its patches of black fur blended in with darker shadows and tree trunks, while its white patches matched bright foliage and snow when present. . Also, rare tones of pale brown fur – muddy fur – match the color of the earth. This provides an intermediate color that bridges the gap between the very dark and very light visible elements of natural habitats.

These results are consistent whether they are shown by human, cat, or dog vision models. The optical systems of domestic dogs and cats are well known and are good alternatives to the optical systems of the natural predators of giant pandas such as tigers and wild dogs.

The black and white markings provide highly effective camouflage in the panda’s natural habitat.
Tim CaroAnd the Author provided (no reuse)

Next, we examined a second form of camouflage—something called disordered coloration—in which highly visible spots on an animal break up the outline by blending it with spots in the background.

We found that giant pandas display this form of defensive colouration, especially at longer viewing distances of at least 60 metres. At these distances, the striped giant panda becomes difficult to recognize as patches of black fur blend in with dark rocks in the background and tree trunks.

Finally, we used a new color-mapping technique to compare how well the animals blend into their background across a variety of species, including giant pandas. This comparative analysis confirmed that the background similarity with the giant panda falls firmly within the group of other species traditionally considered well camouflaged, next to the crabs and jerboas, a desert rodent.

Read more: The red panda may be two different species – and that raises some tough questions for its conservation

So although giant pandas in zoos or other captive places are very obvious to us, we see them up close and surrounded by artificial backgrounds. But when in the wild and at a distance, our research shows that they are beautifully camouflaged, using two different mechanisms to avoid detection.

Giant pandas are a much loved species, and are now doing better in the wild thanks to the extraordinary conservation efforts of the Chinese authorities. So the future of this species is cautiously optimistic. We hope that more people will be able to see pandas in their natural habitat in the future.

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