DAVIS, Calif. — The same scientists who discovered why zebras have black and white stripes also figured out why giant pandas evolved to have fur colored in a similar way.
The team of researchers from University of California, Davis and University of California, Long Beach revealed their findings in a study published recently in the journal, Behavioral Ecology.
Though zebras don their stripes to repel biting flies, the giant panda’s unique coat markings are used for camouflage and communication, the researchers explain in a university release.
“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,” says Tim Caro, a professor at the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, in the release.
“The breakthrough in the study was treating each part of the body as an independent area,” he adds.
Researchers compared the panda’s fur to the dark and light coloring of 195 other carnivore species and 39 other bear subspecies which were related to the panda. They concluded that most regions of the panda, including the face, neck, belly and rump are white to help it hide in snowy areas, while its arms and legs are black to help it hide in the shade.
“This really was a Herculean effort by our team, finding and scoring thousands of images and scoring more than 10 areas per picture from over 20 possible colors,” says co-author Ted Stankowich, a professor at CSU Long Beach, in the release.
Researchers also found that the panda’s black and white coloration comes from its diet, which is mostly comprised of bamboo. Because of its diet, the panda has difficulty storing enough fat during the winter to stay in hibernation, so it stays active and moves through both snowy and tropical habitats during this time instead.
The scientists say the markings on the panda’s head serve a different purpose: communication, both with each other and predators. The bear’s dark ears serve as warning signals for potential predators and its dark eye patches help them recognize each other and signal aggression toward one another.
Says Stankowich: “Sometimes it takes hundreds of hours of hard work to answer what seems like the simplest of questions: Why is the panda black and white?”