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Some giant pandas are born with brown fur instead of black

Giant pandas, with their instantly recognizable black and white fur, are symbols of conservation and adored across the globe. But hidden within their bamboo-filled mountain homes lies a fascinating secret: sometimes, pandas are born with rich brown fur.

This rare coloration has baffled scientists for years, but a recent groundbreaking study has finally shed some light on this captivating mystery.

The story of brown pandas

Let’s meet a few of the famous brown pandas:

Dan Dan

Dan Dan holds the title of the original brown panda celebrity, having a unique and captivating history. Rescued as a sickly cub in 1985 from the wild terrains of the Qinling Mountains, Dan Dan was immediately recognized for its distinctive brown fur, a rarity among the predominantly black and white giant pandas.

The rescue brought it to Xi’an Zoo, where she lived under the care of conservationists until its death in 2000. Dan Dan not only sparked initial interest in the phenomenon of brown pandas but also paved the way for further scientific inquiry into the genetic diversity within panda populations.


Qizai, whose name resonates in the field of wildlife conservation, is currently the only brown panda living in captivity. His story began similarly to Dan Dan’s when he was rescued as a vulnerable cub in 2009 from the Foping National Nature Reserve. His distinct brown-and-white coat marked him as an exceptional case for genetic study.

Qizai’s existence provides researchers with a living subject to investigate the genetic mutations that lead to this unusual pigmentation. His life in captivity, much like Dan Dan’s, offers invaluable insights into the care, breeding, and conservation of this rare variant of the species.

Moreover, studying Qizai helps scientists understand how these genetic traits can be passed on, observed in his offspring, and what this means for the future of pandas with this rare coloration.

The cause of brown pandas

For many years, scientists have been scratching their heads over the origin of brown pandas. Two main explanations dominated the conversation:

One theory suggested that inbreeding within isolated panda populations might be causing the brown fur variation. Inbreeding happens when individuals within a small gene pool mate with close relatives. This can sometimes lead to the emergence of rare genetic traits, but it also increases the risk of health problems in offspring.

Another theory pointed towards environmental factors as a possible trigger. Perhaps something specific in the habitat of these brown pandas, like diet or unique elements present in the Qinling Mountains, could be influencing fur color.

However, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology in Beijing threw a plot twist into this scientific whodunit. Their groundbreaking study suggests that neither inbreeding nor environmental factors might be the sole culprits behind brown fur. This discovery opens up new avenues for understanding this fascinating coloration in pandas.

Panda genes involving brown fur

Scientists delved into the fascinating world of panda genetics and made a key discovery. They pinpointed a specific gene called Bace2 that seems to play a crucial role in determining fur color. Here’s how it works:

Recessive traits

Genes come in pairs, and sometimes one version of a gene (like the one for brown fur) can be “recessive.” This means the trait only shows up if a panda gets two copies of the recessive version, one from each parent. Black-and-white pandas might be carrying a single copy of the recessive brown fur gene without showing any outward signs.


To understand why brown pandas are brown, we need to talk about melanosomes. These little structures inside cells are responsible for producing melanin – the pigment that gives hair and skin its color. Brown pandas have fewer melanosomes and they tend to be smaller, leading to less pigment and a lighter fur color.

Solving the mystery of brown pandas

By carefully analyzing Qizai’s family history and preserved tissue samples from Dan Dan, scientists overturned some long-held assumptions:

Challenging inbreeding theories

Qizai’s case is particularly intriguing because despite his brown fur, both his parents were typical black-and-white pandas. Additionally, his son also exhibits the classic panda coloration. This strongly suggests that the brown fur trait isn’t necessarily linked to inbreeding, but instead might be a naturally occurring variation within panda populations, just like different hair colors in humans.

The Qinling connection

An interesting pattern has emerged: most documented brown pandas seem to originate in the Qinling Mountains. This leads researchers to hypothesize that something unique to this environment – perhaps factors like specific minerals in the soil or elements in their diet – could be interacting with the Bace2 gene, triggering the expression of brown fur.

What does this mean for conservation?

While the discovery of the cause behind brown pandas is fascinating all on its own, it also carries significant implications for the conservation of this beloved species:

The research serves as a powerful reminder that there’s a lot we still don’t know about the genetic makeup of giant pandas. The existence of unexpected variations, like the brown fur trait, underscores the importance of continued research to fully understand the genetic health and diversity of panda populations. This information is crucial for their long-term survival.

With a deeper understanding of the brown fur genetics, scientists might be able to selectively breed brown pandas in controlled environments. Introducing this variation back into the population could potentially increase overall genetic diversity, making pandas more resilient to disease and environmental pressures.

While there are still many questions to answer about brown pandas, this research represents an important first step. Further study into this rare color variation could open up a whole new world of understanding giant pandas and aid in their ongoing conservation.


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