Giant pandas are some of the world’s most iconic animals, not only for their seemingly universal appeal as cute, gentle animals, but mostly because they have served as a kind of figurehead for endangered species.
The giant panda has been on the list of most threatened animals for the longest time, up until September 2016 when the panda population in China increased by 17%. Though China, where the species is local to, disagrees with the move, the panda is no longer considered in the red when it comes to endangered animals, Tech Times reports.
But one of the reasons the giant panda has garnered such interest is its black and white color. Scientists have been studying why exactly these bears got on the endangered species list in the first place, citing factors such as the species’ inability to fend for itself in the wild or the lack of survival instincts.
Now, Tim Caro, the University of California Davis Wildlife Biology professor who studied why zebras have black and white stripes, appears to have found an answer, and it lies in the giant pandas’ famous black and white pattern.
Caro, along with a team of researchers from UC Davis and California State University – Long Beach, examined thousands of photos of giant pandas to determine what makes them unique. When they focused on specific panda parts, the answer became clear.
The researchers found it difficult to compare pandas, given that there are no similar species to measure it against, and there are practically no differences in how they look. So the team decided to treat every part of the panda as an independent area of study.
They compared the fur in different parts of the giant panda’s body to the coloration found in other animals, including 39 bear subspecies and 195 carnivorous species.
The researchers concluded that the main function of the panda’s color and pattern is to conceal and protect itself from predators.
According to Caro, the panda’s white face, neck, belly and rump are intended to hide the animals in the snow during winter while the black arms and legs work to disguise it among the shadows of a forest. This is important, as unlike other bears, pandas don’t store enough fat in their bodies – they only eat bamboo – and don’t hibernate, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
The black eyes and ears, on the other hand, are more for communication among the animals, Caro’s team says.
The study was published in Behavioral Ecology.