The Giant Panda's Striking Coloration May Stem From Its Poor Diet

By Daksha Morjaria on May 13, 2017

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Giant panda Tia Shan at National Zoo in Washington (Photo Credit: By Fernando Revilla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Tim Caro, Professor of Wildlife Biology at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), has made it his mission to understand the evolution of coloration in mammals. The researcher spent twenty years investigating why zebras sport black and white stripes (to ward off flies) and even wrote a book, Zebra Stripes, about his epic discovery. Now, Caro has solved the age-old mystery of why giant pandas also sport the dual coloration.

According to the researcher, “Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult,”

Panda cubs in Chengdu China (Photo Credit: By Joshua Doubek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Over the years, there have been numerous theories to explain the animal’s signature black and white color. Some experts hypothesized that it was to scare predators. Others believed that the white fur provided the mammal with much-needed camouflage in the snow, while the dark patches enabled it to retain heat. There was also the theory that the markings on the panda’s head kept it hidden from predators, while the dark circles around its eyes helped reduce the sun’s glare.

To solve the mystery once and for all, the UC Davis team, who worked in collaboration with scientists at California State University, Long Beach, compared the coloring of different parts of the giant panda’s body to those of 200 carnivore species, including 39 bear subspecies. This was no easy task given that the scientists had to carefully examine thousands of images and seek out the different areas of fur that were similar to those of the giant panda. Once they found a match, they looked further into the carnivore’s evolutionary history to ascertain if it could explain the reason the panda was sporting a similar color.

Scientists compared regions of the great panda’s body with those of other carnivores (Photo Credit: academic.oup.com)

The team, who published their findings in the journal Behavioral Ecology on February 28, discovered that different parts of the giant panda’s coloring serve different purposes. As had been previously believed, the mammal’s white face, neck, belly, and rump allow it to blend in with the snow during winter. Its black arms and legs are not to retain heat, but to help the panda stay hidden in the shade during summer. This is particularly important for cubs that often perch themselves on tree tops to avoid being seen by predators, like jackals and snow leopards, that share the same mountainous habitat in China. The dark ears help scare off predators, while the black eye patches most likely enable giant pandas to recognize each other and, possibly, show aggression towards competitors.

Photo Credit: Ricky Patel (UC Davis.edu)

According to the study, the giant panda’s striking dual coloring may be the result of its poor diet, that comprises primarily of bamboo, which has little nutrition and very few calories. Since the mammals are unable to build up enough fat reserves to allow them to hibernate during the winter, they have no choice but to wander year-round in search of food.

The scientists speculate that instead of developing a summer and winter coat similar to those of small carnivores like the arctic fox, “it [giant panda] has evolved a compromise white and black pelage [fur].”

They maintain that the giant panda is not the only animal that has adopted this evolutionary strategy. Some larger species of wolverines (Gulo gol) that also traverse across several habitats often sport a similar black and white coloring.

Resources: livescience.com, forbes.com,academic.oup.com

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Reading Comprehension (8 questions)

  1. What is Tim Caro’s mission?
  2. How many years did it take him to find out why zebras have black and white stripes?

Critical Thinking Challenge

Why might it be easier for smaller animals to evolve winter...

Vocabulary in Context

“It [giant panda] has evolved a compromise white and black pelage [fur].”

In the above sentence, the word compromise most likely means:

(a) a settlement of...

448 Comments
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  • Brinda Thursday, June 1, 2017 at 3:15 pm
    Very educational and cute
    • pandalover469
      pandalover469Thursday, June 1, 2017 at 11:29 am
      OMG!!!!! SO CUTE! *DIES OF CUTENESS OVERLOAD* LOL Pandas are great but what about sloths? Official quote by pandalover469
      • pandalover469
        pandalover469Thursday, June 1, 2017 at 11:27 am
        This is really cool. I did not know that the white in their fur helped them to blend in. I want a panda bear!!!!!
        • Who Knows WhatThursday, June 1, 2017 at 10:45 am
          Pandas are cute
          • Who Knows WhatThursday, June 1, 2017 at 10:44 am
            Cute
            • kaWednesday, May 31, 2017 at 9:15 pm
              THOSE pandas were cute I wished I had them
              • mhWednesday, May 31, 2017 at 9:15 pm
                I want those cute pandas
                • nfWednesday, May 31, 2017 at 9:03 pm
                  Wow I didn't know that they had white fur to blend into the snowy background.
                  • PandasWednesday, May 31, 2017 at 7:59 pm
                    OMG
                    • cutiepatootieWednesday, May 31, 2017 at 7:35 pm
                      <3

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