Piebald panda. Chendongshan/Shutterstock

As one of the most distinctive animals still roaming the planet, giant pandas have one thing in particular that stands out: its color. The striking black-and-white pattern of the bamboo-munching fiend certainly attracts attention, which in itself raises the question of why a primarily herbivorous beast would want to do so.  

A new study, published in Behavioral Ecology, claims to have come up with a theory, by analyzing the coloration seen in other carnivores and how they relate to aspects of their natural environment. The team found that it seems likely, considering the bears spend some of their time in snow and some in dense forests, that the black-and-white body pattern is something of a compromise, providing camouflage in both environments. The distinctive ear and eye patches, however, are more consistent with communication between pandas.

There have been various suggestions as to why the giant panda struts about in contrasting black and white. The patterning doesn’t seem like one you might choose to look inconspicuous or to blend in with the surroundings, especially for an animal that can weigh up to 160 kilograms (350 pounds). One idea suggests that the variation in color may help in temperature regulation, particularly for an animal that splits its time between living in deep snow and temperate forests.

There are, however, many other species that fit into a monochrome menagerie. Could these help explain the pattern on pandas? The stripes of a zebra have garnered much debate from biologists, with explanations ranging from tsetse fly protection to predator confusion, while the penguin seems to have a much clearer rationale, being straight-up countershading, a form of camouflage. None of these seem to fit with the giant panda, though.

The researchers, therefore, took a different tack. They used a comparative phylogenetic approach, looking at the coat color and patterns among 195 other carnivore species and 39 bear subspecies in relation to the environment they live in and their social behaviors. They found an association between lighter colors and snow cover, and darker pigments and forests, suggesting that the piebald pandas are compromising between the two.

But their distinctive face markings didn’t fit this pattern. Instead, it seems that the species with contrasting ear and eye patches were also the fiercest, which the authors argue could mean the bears use their ears as a warning to predators, as well as communication between each other.

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