Giant Pandas Are Better at Camouflage Than You Might Think

Their iconic markings help them disappear into their surroundings.

Giant panda in tree
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

At first glance, it seems like giant pandas might not be the best at hide and seek.

With their stark black and white coats, they would appear to have a hard time blending into so many environments. But a new study finds that the iconic markings actually provide effective camouflage and help them disappear into their surroundings.

Most mammals have relatively drab coloring, which helps them match their backgrounds and avoid detection by predators. There are a few notable exceptions like giant pandas, skunks, and orcas. Scientists have long wondered what function the black-and-white coloring plays.

For their study, researchers analyzed photos of giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in their natural habitat. They found that the animals were very well camouflaged “because they use habitats with dark and lighting conditions, and also encounter snow during some of the year,” study author Tim Caro of the University of Bristol and the University of California, Davis, tells Treehugger.

They found that the black patches of fur blend primarily into shade and dark tree trunks. But it also matches the ground, rocks, and foliage.

The white fur patches match snow, rocks, and waxy, bright foliage (due to light reflecting from the leaves). Sometimes pandas also have patches of pale brown fur and those blend into rocks, ground, foliage, and shady background areas.

The researchers also explored a type of environmental camouflage known as disruptive coloration. That’s when highly contrasting patterns or very visible boundaries on an animal break up its body outline. They found that the black and white borders on the panda’s coat make it less visible, particularly from farther away.

As a last step, the researchers used a color map technique to compare how giant pandas resemble their background with more than a dozen other species that are considered able to visually hide in their environments. They found that pandas fell in the middle of this “conspicuity spectrum,” between shore crabs and rodents called jerboas.

The results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Through Different Eyes

It might seem a bit baffling because giant pandas are very easy to spot at a zoo, for instance. But the environment and the viewer make a difference.

“We modelled their coloration through predators' eyes as well as how humans see them so we are sure of the results,” Caro says. They used canine, feline, and human vision models to view each image.

Despite the fact that humans see things differently from panda predators, there are also the situations where people usually see the black-and-white animals.

“It seems that giant pandas appear conspicuous to us because of short viewing distances and odd backgrounds: when we see them, either in photographs or at the zoo, it is almost always from close up, and often against a backdrop that doesn’t reflect their natural habitat,” says author Nick Scott-Samuel of the University of Bristol.

“From a more realistic predator’s perspective, the giant panda is actually rather well camouflaged.”

View Article Sources
  1. Nokelainen, Ossi, et al. "The Giant Panda is Cryptic." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-00742-4

  2. "Giant Pandas’ Distinctive Black and White Markings Provide Effective Camouflage, Study Finds." University of Bristol, 2021.

  3. study author Tim Caro of the University of Bristol and the University of California, Davis