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Here’s Why Pandas Are Black & White

Ever wondered why pandas are black and white? New scientific findings suggest possible explanations in terms of camouflage and communication. The paper is published in Behavioral Ecology.

We all know the meme that describes the panda as not being racist because it is black, white, and Asian! But, did you ever stop and think as to why its face, neck, belly, and hind part are white while its arms and legs are black? If yes, you’d not be the only one! As a matter of fact, biologists have attempted to solve this problem; but, their work proved to be challenging since no other mammal shared this feature, and scientists were not able to come up with reliable analogies, explains lead author of the new study, Tim Caro, from UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

When Caro and his team set out to find out the reason behind the panda’s black-and-white markings, they found that the purpose related to camouflage and communication: the ‘white’, to help it hide from predators in snow, and the ‘black’, in shade. They reached this conclusion after they considered each body part individually.

They proceeded by drawing comparisons between the different areas of fur throughout the body of the animal and the colouring (dark and light) of other animals to which the panda is related: a set of 195 carnivore species and 39 bear subspecies. The darkness of these regions were then assessed, taking into account a number of ecological and behavioural variables to decipher their functions.

So, why does the dual colouration function as camouflage? Caro and his colleagues suggest that the dual colouring serves the panda’s need to travel to and to live in (and thus to hide from dangers) a wide range of habitats that include those covered in snow, and others like tropical forests. This is so because it has to remain active throughout the year as it cannot save enough body fat to be able to hibernate in winter (like some bears do) because it feeds mainly on bamboo, being unable to digest most plants—thus, its need to travel across long distances to different types of habitats for foraging.

The team also explains the two-colour combination as an aid to communication: the dark ears of the panda may constitute a sign of warning to predators, and the dark eye patches may assist it to recognise others of its kind or to convey a sign of aggression to competitors.

It is to be noted that this is the same group of scientists who had investigated the mystery behind the black and white stripes of the zebra.


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