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Panda bears' black and white fur is used for both communication and camouflage

Panda bears are known for their unique markings, but their black and white fur isn’t just for looks. Scientists have discovered that panda bears’ black and white fur serves both as camouflage and a type of communication between the bears.

The researchers, from University of California, Davis and California State University, Long Beach, had previously studied why zebras have their black and white stripes.

The pandas, they believe, evolved their black and white patterned fur to serve as camouflage in both snowy and shadowy terrain.

“Analyses of fur color and background environments suggest that the giant panda’s white face, nape, dorsum, flank, belly, and rump are adapted for crypsis against a snowy background, whereas its black shoulders and legs are adapted for crypsis in shade,” they wrote in their study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

The mixed fur color allows them to hide year-round in several types of terrain. This may serve to counteract pandas’ poor dietary habits. Because the panda bears eat a highly specialized bamboo diet and cannot digest most other foods, they can’t build up the fat stores other bear species use to hibernate. Their fur pattern offers more protection during the winter months.

The researchers studied other bears and other carnivores, comparing fur coloration on various body parts to try and determine how panda coloring evolved. The breakthrough came when scientists began treating each panda body part as independent from the whole, the scientists said.

The one exception to the theory is the pandas’ black ears and eye patches. They don’t seem to have evolved as camouflage, the researchers said, but for communication.

“Dark ears may be involved with signaling intent about ferocity whereas dark eye marks may serve in individual recognition,” they wrote.

Previous theories about panda coloration suggested that the bear – once believed to be more closely related to raccoons until DNA studies disproved that theory – had evolved its unique markings to keep cool. Scientists also theorized that the dark eye patches might serve as natural sunglasses.

“There is no compelling support for their fur color being involved in temperature regulation, disrupting the animal’s outline, or in reducing eye glare,” the researchers wrote.

By Kyla Cathey, Staff Writer

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