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Finally, an answer to the age old question: Why are pandas black and white?

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This picture taken on October 30, 2012 shows two giant pandas having their meal in their new home in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Wolong, southwest China's Sichuan province. The first 18 giant pandas returned to their new home in the newly reconstructed China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center Base after it was damaged in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images
This picture taken on October 30, 2012 shows two giant pandas having their meal in their new home in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Wolong, southwest China's Sichuan province. The first 18 giant pandas returned to their new home in the newly reconstructed China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center Base after it was damaged in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Giant pandas have some of the most distinctive markings in nature. But why are they black and white? We may finally have some answers.

Black and white. They've always gone well together.

Think of the keys on a piano, a pair of dice or even a cookie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjlW3QCR8Rg

Jerry Seinfeld agrees. Black and white works.

But nowhere else in the world does that combo work better than in the animal kingdom. Orcas, zebras and — arguably the most recognizable black and white critter of all time — the panda! Even though this animal is so beloved, no one has really known why it has its distinctive look.

Until now.

Tim Caro is a biologist in the Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology department at the University of California, Davis, and he set out to answer the ever-important question, Why are pandas black and white?

Caro joined A Martinez to discuss what his research found about the giant panda and its monochromatic fur.

Interview Highlights

In a statement about the study, you said: 

“Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult.” 

Can you give some context on that?



I think that the issue is that there isn't any other mammal that looks like the giant panda, and so it's not easy to say, "Well, another species has this kind of coloration for such and such reason and therefore it's likely that the giant panda has that, too."



...The breakthrough in this study is that we decided to break up the body parts of the giant panda's external appearance into the face, the belly, the back, the shoulders and the legs. And then, taking each of those parts alone, we could then compare it to many other related species of carnivores."

What did your study find?



What we did is, we looked to see where you find white backs or black legs in other carnivores. And so we looked at variables like temperature, and the giant panda is an interesting species because it moves between different habitats during the course of the year. So, some of the year it's found in snowier backgrounds and some of the year it's found in dark subtropical rain forests.



So, we think that the white and black coloration is a kind of compromise between these two different environments and the animals trying to stay camouflaged against large predators like wolves and tigers in both of these habitats, simultaneously..."

But what about the unique markings on the panda's face?



We were able to determine that the black and white coloration on the side of the body is concerned with camouflage, but that didn't work at all for the face. The black eyes and the black ears seem to be involved with communication between either pandas and other carnivores. Perhaps, the ears signal ferocity...



We certainly think the panda is paying a lot of attention to these large black eye markings on other pandas. These eye markings are very variable in shape and in size and, certainly, when you have an interaction between two pandas and there's possibly a fight going to happen ... if one of the animals wants to back off without getting into a fight, it will cover its eyes with its forepaws so that it hides the shape of its eyes from the dominant opponent.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above. 

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