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Pandas' Coats Are Surprisingly Effective Camouflage Through Predators' Eyes

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Rachael Funnell

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Rachael Funnell

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

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Pandas are very hard to spot through the eyes of their natural predators. Image credit: FuWen Wei

Understanding the spectral sensitivities of different species has enabled science to do something pretty cool: we can now see the world through the eyes of different animals. This kind of vision model was recently used to understand how sharks see humans (like seals, FYI) and now has been employed to test out the theory that a panda’s seemingly conspicuous coat actually works as a form of camouflage in the wild. Looking at photos of animals through the eyes of humans, felids, and canines, researchers were able to confirm that while they stand out in captive environments, it’s pretty damn hard to spot a panda in the wild.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is the brainchild of researchers from the University of Bristol, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of Jyväskylä. Together, the team got to work innovating a novel approach to looking at photos of giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) to see how (or if) their bold black-and-white coats blended into the environment. Historically it's been difficult to see pandas in this way, with the species teetering on the brink of extinction, but this year it was announced that they are no longer endangered in the wild [happy panda noises].

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Crypsis is a term used to describe animals that are so well camouflaged that they are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding environment. Animals that fall under this term are often blends of subtle tones such as brown and grey, but there are a few dramatic monochromatic exceptions to the trends including orcas, skunks, and zebras.

To see if the panda’s black and white coat really did help it to camouflage, the team analyzed a portfolio of rare photographs of giant pandas in the wild to see how they compared in their natural environment. However, they didn’t just want to see how the pandas looked through the eyes of humans, they wanted to assess how the pandas appeared to their natural predators, which include species from the felids and canines.

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We hotly await the "spot the panda" 2022 calendar. Image credit: FuWen Wei

“We know the spectral sensitivities of all these species  – humans being trichromats but the cat and dog being dichromats, and now biologists are able to model how other species actually view the world by knowing about the functional anatomy of their visual systems,” said corresponding author Professor Tim Caro to IFLScience.

Not only did their methodology reveal that the pandas were indeed camouflaged, with dark patches looking like tree trunks and shadows, while the white matched foliage and snow, they also discovered that it was a type of camouflage usually associated with insects.

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“We discovered that disruptive coloration, by which an animal's coloration breaks up its outline, and a well-known phenomenon in insects, is operating in a mammal. This had never been demonstrated [in pandas] properly before.”

That this discovery about pandas is only being made now comes down to their rarity in the wild and how accustomed we’ve become to only seeing them close-up in zoo environments. The researchers were able to work from rare photos of pandas behaving naturally in their wild environment, providing a new perspective that – combined with the felid and canine vision model goggles – showed the panda’s “conspicuous” coat in a whole new light.

The researchers now plan to use their state-of-the-art techniques to better understand the function of black and white coloration in other species, Caro explained, starting with black and white colobus monkeys.


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