Why is the giant panda black-and-white?

Why are giant pandas black-and-white? It looks as if they can’t be camouflaged with such sharp lines between the white and black parts of their fur. But a really good photograph accompanied by a really good article in The Times newspaper clarifies the point. Black fur blends into shaded areas and trees while the white matches foliage and snow. It seems that scientists have unravelled the mystery of this highly popular animal’s coat.

Panda showing off camouflage

Panda showing off camouflage. Photo: FUWEN WEI; ALAMY

The coat does, indeed, provide excellent camouflage in the habitat in which this species of animal lives. When you first see the giant panda it looks as though evolution has decided that they should be seen because of their standout coat. Not so, as you can clearly see in the photograph. They are masters at blending into the mountain environment in China in which they live. In winter their coat helps to match up with the rocks and snow and in summer the coat blends into a background of waxy leaves in a sub-tropical rainforest.

Fifteen rare photographs taken in the wild were used. A computer assessed how they would be seen by tigers, leopards and dholes (a wild dog). All three are thought to pray on the giant panda, especially young. They found that pandas use two forms of camouflage. At about 12 metres from the panda their black fur blends into dark shade and tree trunks and their white fur matches foliage. This is particularly so with light reflecting from leaves. The white fur also matches the snow.

Professor Tim Caro of the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and the co-author of the research project said:

“I knew we were on to something when our Chinese colleagues sent us photographs from the wild and I couldn’t see the giant panda.”

The report is published online on the Scientific Reports website.


Reconstruction of two Amphimachairodus hezhengensis defending their prey (Hezhengia bohlini) from two Dinocrocuta gigantea. Artwork by Oscar Sanisidro.

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