Giant Pandas: The Secret of their colours

Black and White: Scientists have found out why pandas have such distinctive fur. Source: Wally Gobetz (via Flickr)

By Mia Becker-Hansen | Head of Science and Technology

A new study has found that the colour of giant pandas actually play a crucial role in their survival in the wild, the puzzle of their coat has questioned experts for generations.  

While the bears’ distinctive high-contrast colouring means they stand out in the surroundings of a zoo, where most humans encounter them, the opposing shades of black and white actually plays a counterintuitive but crucial defensive role in the mountain forests of Southern China, where they would normally reside.

Tim Caro from the university of Bristol and his colleagues previously looked at camouflage in other animals to suggest that the colours help to conceal from predators like big cats, such as snow leopards. The team have developed this idea by modelling how giant pandas would appear in the eyes of the predators.

The group analysed 15 pictures of giant pandas residing in their natural habitat in Southern China, the photos were taken from between 5 and 150 metres from the panda, including both snowy and sunny environments. They used a computer model to produce and analyse the images as they would appear to predatory cats and dogs. “We don’t know what a tiger or a leopard’s eye is really like, but we do know how a [domestic] cat or dog’s eye works and so we can extrapolate from that,” says Caro.

The results showed that cats and dogs would struggle to be able to see the pandas in a forest, particularly if far away. From a predator’s perspective, not only did the panda’s colours match its background, but beyond a distance of 55 metres, the panda began to lose its general outline. “We’ve seen this effect in things like moths but never a mammal,” says Caro.

The pandas coat also works for all seasons. This is unlike other animals such as Arctic Hares which have a brown coat in the summer and a white coat in the snowy winter. For giant pandas, their coat works all year round for the hot summers and white winters. Giant pandas in the wild would also have a lot of brown mud rubbed into their white part of fur, which would help camouflage them further.

Today, giant pandas are generally safe from predators, with a large amount of their dwindling population being kept in protection areas and zoos.

Mia Becker-Hansen Science and Technology

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