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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hiding in plain sight: Pandas’ fur can baffle forest predators

Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji is easy to spot at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. But pandas’ black-and-white coloring may not allow predators in their native China to find them easily.  (Smithsonian's National Zoo)
By Galadriel Watson Special to Washington Post

If you’ve visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo recently, you might have enjoyed watching giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji or his parents munch on bamboo.

You probably didn’t have a hard time finding him in his enclosure. Pandas are big animals and sport large patches of black-and-white fur.

In the wild, such standout coloration could mean that predators such as leopards, tigers and wild dogs called dholes might have an easy time seeing this animal. But, surprisingly, researchers have discovered that this may not be the case.

“In its natural environment, that kind of coloration doesn’t actually stand out that much,” says Ossi Nokelainen, a researcher at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland.

Most of the time, animals camouflage themselves by “having an appearance that resembles the background,” Nokelainen said. For example, “desert rodents match the sand environment and a mountain hare becomes white in winter to match the snow and becomes brown again in summer.”

As for a giant panda, Nokelainen and other researchers studied photos of it in its natural habitat of the mountain forests of China. They discovered that its black patches blend into the dark tree trunks and shadows.

“On the other hand, there are lots of bright elements as well, like very pale gray stones,” Nokelainen said. The trees’ leaves reflect the sun, and there may be winter snow. The giant panda’s white areas resemble all of those.

The giant panda also benefits from what researchers call “disruptive coloration.” Nokelainen explains: “One of the ways for animals to conceal themselves is that they use highly contrasting patterns that break their outline.”

This means that, instead of seeing the shape of a giant panda, a predator may get confused by the many different dark and light spaces. Is that a giant panda, a predator may wonder, or just a clump of rocks, leaves or tree trunks?

In addition, the eyesight of wildcats and dogs isn’t as sharp as a human’s. They may be great at seeing movement, but the details may be blurry. Because of this, giant pandas “might have even better camouflage to their natural predators,” Nokelainen says.

Some other animals use black and white for camouflage, too, including the orca. When seen from above, its black back is tricky to see against dark waters. When seen from below, its white belly seems to merge with a bright sky.

This helps it sneak close to tasty fish or seals.

A zebra’s stripes might also help it blend into the background in dim light and stay safer from predators such as lions – but that might not be the stripes’ main advantage. Instead, it seems that they help repel biting flies. These insects don’t like stripes, although researchers aren’t sure why.

And rather than trying to hide, a skunk uses its loud black-and-white pattern to warn away predators: Try to eat me and you won’t enjoy the results! It and other eye-catching animals – such as bright, poisonous butterflies or stinging wasps – “are advertising their defenses by their visual appearance,” Nokelainen says.

The giant panda, however, doesn’t have protection like a stinky spray.

“The giant panda is a rather slow animal, so I think it’s very beneficial for the pandas if they can hide in plain sight,” Nokelainen said. His research suggests that they can.