Giant pandas owe their coloring to a combination of camouflage and communication needs.
There's an old Tibetan myth that attempts to explain how these lovable giants got their unusual black and white markings. In the olden times, pandas were completely white in color. One day, a group of shepherdesses saved a panda cub from a leopard attack. The shepherdesses did not survive, and the pandas mourned their loss. To honor the shepherdesses, the pandas rubbed black ash into their arms. As they rubbed their eyes to dry their tears and covered their ears against the weeping, the ash spread across their bodies.
That, according to legend, is why these lovable giants have their distinct markings.
According to science, however, the story is a lot different. The same researchers that found out why zebras have stripes have discovered the real story behind panda markings.
Tim Caro and his colleagues recently published a paper detailing their findings. Their study required quite a lot of work to answer something that seemed so simple. However, the question of why giant pandas are black and white have been on scientists' minds for years. “Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology,” said Caro. To the research team, all the effort was worth it.
The team studied thousands of pictures of different pandas. They scored over 10 areas per image with regards to over 20 colors. It took hundreds of man hours, but the team took it in stride.
Pandas are somewhat unique in that other similar mammals have drab brown coloring to blend into their environments. Taking ecological factors into account, the researchers considered the different colors and body parts of the panda separately. The coloring of the panda was then compared to the coloring of other similar or related species. Through these comparisons, the researchers were able to determine pandas have their distinct markings.
A poor diet and digestive system may be the reason behind the panda's coloring. Pandas subsist on bamboo because they are unable to digest most other plants. As a result, they cannot hibernate during the winter because their diet does not have enough fat. This means that pandas have to travel across different areas throughout the year.
The dominant white coloring in a panda helps it stay camouflaged in snow-covered landscapes. When it travels to a tropical forest, its black markings help it hide better in the shade.
A panda's facial markings, however, are a different story. The facial markings are for communication, not camouflage. The researchers claim that black ears help the panda intimidate potential predators. The distinct patches of black fur around their eyes, meanwhile, help them recognize or express aggression towards other pandas.
Perhaps giant pandas managed to survive for a long time due in part to their markings. Zoologists have long lamented pandas might die out due to their poor diet. What they might not have considered is that panda markings have long made up for what panda diet lacks.
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