Giant Panda in a tree. Image courtesy: WWF Italy

Scientists have revealed that the black and white markings on giant pandas serve two functions: camouflage and communication.

In a collaborative study between the University of California, Davis, and the California State University, Long Beach, the scientists who studied why zebras have black and white stripes posed the question of colouration to giant pandas.

According to the researchers, treating each part of the body as an independent area was the breakthrough in the study.  This enabled them to compare different regions of fur across the body to the dark and light colouring of 195 carnivore species and 39 bear subspecies, to which the giant panda is related.

The team then matched the darkness of these regions to various ecological and behavioural variables to understand their function.

“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 colours,” said co-author of the study Ted Stankowich, professor at the California State University, Long Beach.

The findings suggest that majority of the panda’s body including the face, neck, belly, flank, and hind part is white to allow it to blend easily in snowy habitats, whereas the arms and legs are black, to help to hide in shade.

The dual colour combination arises from its poor diet of bamboo and inability to digest a wider variety of plants. Since the giant pandas cannot store sufficient fat to allow them to hibernate during winters, they remain active all throughout the year, travelling long distances and habitat types ranging from snow- covered mountains to tropical forests.

However, the dark markings on the head are used to communicate, rather than for camouflage. While their dark ears may help to indicate ferocity, as a warning to predators, the dark patches around the eyes help in individual recognition.

“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,” said lead author Tim Caro, professor at the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California.

The study has been published in the journal Behavioural Ecology.