Giant pandas are instantly recognizable. There aren’t a whole lot of mammals with black and white color schemes, after all. And whether a panda is male or female, young or old, it has that hallmark patterning. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why they look like that, well, you’re in good company. Scientists have wondered, too. They felt there simply had to be a reason why these giant fluff balls are black and white? And there are a few of them, actually.
Researchers have proposed a lot of hypotheses over the years to explain the panda’s characteristic coloring. Like, maybe the stark contrast serves as a warning to predators. Or, their dark fur helps them retain heat. But pandas’ small numbers and remote habitats make them hard to study in the wild.
So in the late 2010s, a group of scientists based in California took a different approach. They decided to see what they could learn about pandas from studying other animals. From photos, they quantified the lightness or darkness of different body parts for 195 other meat-eating mammals as well as 39 varieties of bears. Then, they looked to see if there were any relationships between the average color of the body parts and aspects of the animals’ environment and behavior. So things like whether species that live in cold places tend to have lighter legs, or if species that live in groups have darker ears, for instance. And that led them to conclude that there probably isn’t just one reason why pandas are black and white.
Weird as it might seem, their conspicuous body colors are probably for blending in. The team found a relationship between having light-colored fur and living in areas with snow, especially for animals that don’t hibernate and need to camouflage themselves against the white background. On the flip side, dark fur is seen in species that need to camouflage themselves in the shade under leafy, summer trees. And thanks to their diet, pandas actually need both summer and winter camouflage.
See, their main food source is bamboo, which doesn’t have a whole lot of nutrients. And, to make matters worse, pandas descended from a lineage of carnivores, so their digestive systems aren’t all that great at digesting plants. So, they simply can’t store enough fat to hibernate through the winter. And that means that they need to be active when it’s snowy and when it’s shady hence white and black.
The fur on their heads is probably dark for a totally different reason. The analysis suggested their dark ears may serve as a warning to predators by making them look more aggressive. Meanwhile, the dark circles around their eyes could have evolved as a means of telling each other apart. They certainly work that way. Not only can pandas distinguish between mask patterns, but they can also remember those specific patterns for up to a year.
But, truth is, we can’t say for sure that a combination of snow and shade camouflage, signaling to other species, and identifying each other is definitely why pandas are black and white. It’s always possible that their colors evolved for different reasons than the colors of other carnivores. What we can say is that pandas seem pretty well adapted for their year-round lifestyle in the chilly Chinese mountains. And their iconic looks are probably a big part of that—and our enduring fondness for them.