There’s a reason pandas are black and white: evolutionary compromise

Giant pandas look like almost no other animal on earth, but the purpose of those distinctive black and white markings has always been a bit of a mystery. Now, the scientists behind last year’s study on why zebras are black and white have done it again, this time for pandas.

While their study on zebras found that the animals’ black and white stripes aren’t for camouflage, a similar investigation into pandas, found that their black and white fur is.

“The breakthrough in the study was treating each part of the body as an independent area,” said lead author Tim Caro, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

After separating out the different parts of the panda, Caro and his team compared each section to other bears and other carnivorous species, to match things like the darkness of their fur, then comparing the animals’ lifestyles and habitats.

As you can see in the video above, the critical element turns out to be the fact that pandas don’t hibernate. Since pandas’ diet of bamboo isn’t very rich in nutrients, they don’t have enough stored energy to hibernate. Instead, they spend the year traveling between snowy mountains and dense forests looking for food. That means they need to blend into two very different habitats, and their black and white fur is an evolutionary compromise. The white helps them blend into the snow, the black helps them blend into the shadows of the jungle. Sort of.

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