Why are pandas black and white?

March 6, 2017, 1:20 p.m.
A panda eats a stalk of bamboo
Photo: leungchopan/Shutterstock

Pandas are easily recognizable due to their black-and-white fur patterns, but we've never known what purpose their colorization served. Now, the same team of researchers that figured out why zebra have their stripes are proposing an explanation for pandas' unique markings.

Bamboo turns out to be the key to at least half the mystery. This plant isn't particularly packed with nutrients, and that means pandas have to forage in different areas if they want to keep eating. Since they don't hibernate during the winter, finding bamboo in snowy climates means they need to blend in, hence the white fur on the face, neck, tummy and posterior. But since bamboo is their primary food source, pandas often have to venture into jungle-like areas, which is where their black legs come into play, helping them to hide from predators.

The markings on the panda's face — its black ears and the black fur around the eyes — have nothing to do with bamboo and camouflage. The researchers suggest that the dark ears are meant to be intimidating — "GRR! Stay away!" — while the circles around the eyes may be used as identifying markers among pandas.