Why is the giant panda colored black and white?

Date: 16 March 2017

Introduction: In Gazet Van Antwerpen Prof. Herwig Leirs was interviewed on the multiple functions of hair color in animals.

The interview with Herwig Leirs (Global Change Ecology Centre, Research Group Evolutionary Ecology) was published on the occasion of a study by Tim Caro of University of California. This study explains the characteristic color patterns of the giant pandas pelt.

Herwig elaborates in the interview on the multiple functions of animal hair color. The striped pattern of the zebra deters gad-flies. Other animals use color for camouflage, moving around as discretely as possible. But the opposite tactic is also applied: the honey badger in Africa and the skunk have a striking white color on their back. This way they show other animals that they should better not be tempered with. The first animal has quite an aggressive character, while the skunk can spread an unpleasant odor. Sometimes pelt color had a function in the past, but not anymore. In these cases, hair color is a relic of the past.

And what about the giant panda? The researchers think that the white pelt serves camouflage purposes in winter. However, unlike other animals, the giant panda does not change color in warmer periods. Changing color costs a lot of energy. The bamboo diet of the panda is rather poor: pandas therefore need to spend their energy wisely. The black paws could serve camouflage purposes in summer, as the giant pandas can better blend into the shadows. The black eyes and ears play a role in communication during panda conflicts.