Why giant pandas are black and white: Bears evolved distinctive markings to help them camouflage against dark shades in tree trunks and light patches of snow, study finds
- Scientists analysed rare photos of giant pandas in their natural habitats
- They found dark patches help them blend in with trees, and white with snow
- The highly visible boundaries also break up its outline at long distances
With its black and white markings and cuddly face, the giant panda is one of the most distinctive creatures in the animal kingdom.
Now, researchers have uncovered why giant pandas evolved to have these unique colourings – and it’s all to do with camouflage.
Experts from the University of Bristol say that the dark patches help pandas to blend in with tree trunks, while their lighter patches allow them to camouflage against patches of snow.
‘Giant pandas appear conspicuous to us because of short viewing distances and odd backgrounds: when we see them, either in photographs or at the zoo, it is almost always from close up, and often against a backdrop that doesn’t reflect their natural habitat,’ explained Prof Nick Scott-Samuel, an author of the study.
‘From a more realistic predator’s perspective, the giant panda is actually rather well camouflaged.’
Experts from the University of Bristol say that the dark patches help pandas to blend in with tree trunks, while their lighter patches allow them to camouflage against patches of snow
Pandas live mainly in temperate forests high in the mountains of southwest China, where they subsist almost entirely on bamboo.
They must eat around 26 to 84 pounds of it every day, depending on what part of the bamboo they are eating.
They use their enlarged wrist bones that function as opposable thumbs.
A newborn panda is about the size of a stick of butter, but females can grow up to about 200 pounds, while males can grow up to about 300 pounds as adults.
These bears are excellent tree climbers despite their bulk.
While most mammals are brown or grey in colour, a small number of animals have developed black and white colourings – including orcas, zebras, skunks and pandas.
In the study, the team used state-of-the art image analysis techniques on rare photos of giant pandas in their natural environments to understand why they have evolved to have these markings.
The analysis revealed that the black patches blended in with dark shades and tree trunks, while the white patches match foliage and snow.
Meanwhile, pale brown tones blend in with the ground colour, according to the team.
Prof Tim Caro, an author of the study, explained: ‘I knew we were on to something when our Chinese colleagues sent us photographs from the wild and I couldn’t see the giant panda in the picture.
‘If I couldn’t see it with my good primate eyes, that meant that would-be carnivorous predators with their poorer eyesight might not be able to see it either.
‘It was simply a matter of demonstrating this objectively.’
The researchers also found that pandas use disruptive colouration – a form of camouflage in which highly visible boundaries on an animal break up its outline, especially at longer viewing distances.
Dr Ossi Nokelainen, who led the study, added: ‘The rare photographic evidence allowed us to examine the giant panda appearance in its natural environment for the first time.
‘With help of the state-of-the-art image analysis, we were able to treat these images as if the pandas would have been seen by their predator surrogates using applied vision modelling techniques and also to explore their disruptive coloration.
‘Comparative results totally bust the myth of giant pandas being overtly conspicuous in their natural habitat.’
The analysis revealed that the black patches blended in with dark shades and tree trunks, while the white patches match foliage and snow
China’s Yangtze Basin region is the panda’s primary habitat.
However, pandas are currently listed as vulnerable, with only an estimated 1,800 left in the wild.
WWF explained: ‘Infrastructure development (such as dams, roads, and railways) is increasingly fragmenting and isolating panda populations, preventing pandas from finding new bamboo forests and potential mates.
‘Forest loss also reduces pandas’ access to the bamboo they need to survive.
‘The Chinese government has established more than 50 panda reserves, but only around 67% of the total wild panda population lives in reserves, with 54% of the total habitat area being protected.’