A panda stands out at the zoo but blends in the wild

The black-and-white coloring camouflages a panda from its predators

A new comic series from Science News for Students

JoAnna Wendel

When you see a panda at the zoo, it stands out against the green bamboo that it eats all day. But that setting is misleading. In the wild, the panda’s black-and-white patches help it to blend in with its background. That keeps the animal camouflaged against predators like tigers, leopards and dholes, a type of wild dog, a new study finds.

“We have been fooled into thinking that [pandas] are much easier to see than they are in the wild. If we want to understand animal coloration, we need to look at species where they live,” says Tim Caro. He’s a zoologist at the University of Bristol in England. He is a co-author on the new study, which was published October 28 in Scientific Reports.

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), a rare species of bear, lives in remote mountain forests in southwest China. Earlier research had shown that pandas’ white patches help them blend into snowy areas. And their dark legs and shoulders match well with shady bits of forest. Or at least they do to human eyes.

“We tend to usually overestimate … how well animals can see because our own color perception is so good,” says Ossi Nokelainen. He is an ecologist at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

For their new study, Nokelainen, Caro and their colleagues obtained 15 images of pandas in the wild. They then corrected the photos to match how domestic dogs and cats would see the images. Dogs and cats aren’t dholes and tigers, but their vision should be similar. And the images showed that the pandas should be well-camouflaged from their predators, at least from a distance.

This “makes sense,” says Nokelainen, since pandas have to stay in one place, fairly still, for a long time to eat enough bamboo. “They can just evade the predators in a way that they can’t be detected easily by the predators.”

an illustration of a panda peeking out from behind some saplings. Text reads "A panda hides in plain sight Written by Sarah Zielinski Illustrated by JoAnna Wendel"
Text: The giant panda is black and white, which might seem like a mistake. Kid: Dad, how can pandas survive if a tiger can see them this easily? Wouldn’t all the pandas get eaten? But the panda’s natural habitat isn’t a zoo full of green, green bamboo. And tigers don’t see the world as we do. Image is a drawing of a panda in a zoo enclosure. The panda is in front of a cluster of bamboo and next to some large rocks. The father and son are looking at the panda from outside the enclosure.
Text: But panda predators see differently from people. Tigers and leopards are big cats. Dholes are a type of wild dog. Humans see in a combination of three colors: red, green and blue. Predators like tigers, though, see only two: yellowish and blue. What the average human sees What a predator might see As a result, “colors are toned down,” says Ossi Nokelainen. He’s an ecologist at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Image: A red circle, green triangle, blue square and yellow diamon float above girl, a tigert, a leopard and a dhole. All are shown from shoulders up. The girl has a thought bubble above her head with the circle, triangle and square. Below her text reads "What the average human sees". The animals have a shared thought bubble above their heads containing a square and a diamond. Text below them reads "What a predator might see"
Text: Caro, Nokelainen and their colleagues wanted to know if the predators see pandas the same way that people do. Colleagues in China took 15 photos of pandas in the wild, seven in snowy weather, eight in summer. The team then used image software to adjust the photos to what domestic cats and dogs might see. Scientist: Finally! I’ve been waiting days to get this shot. Scientists don’t know exactly how tigers, leopards and dholes see. But it’s probably close to their domestic relatives. Image: a giant panda behind a tree and a rock in a forest. a person with a camera is in the crook of a tree thinking "Finally! I've been waiting days to get this shot!"
Text: The researchers then compared the colors of the pandas in the photos to the colors of their forest homes. The black patches on pandas looked similar to shadows and tree trunks. White patches were similar to the light reflecting off leaves, or to snow in winter.  Canine vision graph Feline vision graph  And pandas aren’t just black and white. They have mid-tones in their coats that are similar to the colors of the ground, leaves and rocks. Image: Two graphs showing canine and feline vision, below a panda is sitting. An arrow pointing to the panda's stomach reads "Some midtones"
Text: The patches of black and white also help to break up the panda’s shape, the team found. This is known as edge disruption. It makes it harder for predators to detect their prey.  Some insects use edge disruption, but this is the first time scientists have confirmed the phenomenon in mammals, says Nokelainen. Image: A panda several feet away. The panda is facing away from the viewer and napping with its head on a rock.
Text: Predators probably have a hard time distinguishing a panda from its background, especially from a distance.   Tiger: I can smell panda! Now where is that yummy bear?  Panda: Maybe if I don’t move, she won’t it won’t find me. Image: A panda hides behind some trees thinking "Maybe if I don't move, she won't find me." A tiger to the front of the picture is thinking "I know I smell a panda! Now where is that yummy bear?"
The last thing that the team did was compare how well pandas match their background to how well other species do this. The most conspicuous animals were species like poison dart frogs that use their colors to warn predators not to eat them. The least were tiny mammals that find safety by blending into the background. In the middle were pandas. Image: Animal coloring v. background overlap chart
Text: “This busts the myth,” Nokelainen says, that pandas are conspicuous in their natural habitat. And it shows the importance of understanding how animals other than humans view the world. Image: A drawing of a panda in the rear of the picture behind trees, rocks and bamboo. Panda's thought bubble: Can you see me now?
JoAnna Wendel

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has two cats, Oscar and Saffir.

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer and cartoonist in Portland, Ore. She loves to make comics about all types of science, but she especially loves drawing planets, invertebrates and sea creatures. When she's not drawing, JoAnna is probably reading, hiking or hanging out with her cat, Pancake.

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