The pandas' eye-catching colour is actually a highly efficient camouflage

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Ricky Joseph

A panda in a zoo may look many things to our eyes, but not camouflaged. It turns out that, in the eyes of predators, giant pandas ( Ailuropoda melanoleuca ) are masters of camouflage, according to a new study.

The research published in the journal Scientific Reports sought a new perspective to assess why giant pandas have such distinctive coloration, since most mammals have more discrete patterns. Using a vision model based on canines and felines, researchers found the secret of pandas' camouflage.

Our primate eyes, in this sense, are trichromatic, with three types of cones - visual cells - for the detection of color information of objects. Canines and felines, on the other hand, have only two types of cones for this function (dichromatic), which makes the vision of these animals much simpler.

The catch - pun intended - is that both cats and dogs are predators of giant pandas in their natural habitat in Asia. Not surprisingly, dichromatic image analysis has shown that the pandas' camouflage is highly effective in the eyes of their predators.

Moreover, the research also takes into account footage of pandas in forests and natural environments. This is important because these bears were until recently highly endangered. Thus, the vast majority of video records were of these animals in captivity.

In the forest, the black and white coloring blends well with leaves and snow (light part) and branches and ground (dark part). In addition, some pandas may have patches of brown on their body, which further helps camouflage.

Image: Nokelainen et al Scientific Reports 2021.

Orcas, zebras and pandas - eye-catching and masters of camouflage

Color, as much as it may seem like just an adornment, has a variety of functions that possibly even date back to the dinosaur era. A colored animal can symbolize that it is poisonous, for example. Another animal can take advantage of this and pretend to be poisonous with strong colors. This duo happens with coral and false coral snakes, by the way.

One of the most common uses is, in fact, camouflage. Crypsis is the name of the characteristic of an animal that camouflages itself in the environment by using color, texture or shape. Surprisingly, orcas, zebras and pandas, which have black and white patterns, fit well into the crypsis characteristic.

That's because, according to the research, the very defined lines between black and white create an illusion that draws the eye away from the shape of the animal's body. That's also why leopards, tigers, and jaguars are such ruthless ambush predators, even though they have yellow and orange colors.

Image: kolibri5 / Pixabay

"We have found that disruptive coloration, whereby an animal's coloration breaks its contours, a well-known phenomenon in insects, is operating in a mammal. This has never been properly demonstrated [in pandas] before," professor and author Tim Caro tells IFLScience.

Now the team seeks to apply the same concept of vision models to other species, such as those mentioned above.

The research is available in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ricky Joseph is a seeker of knowledge. He firmly believes that through understanding the world around us, we can work to better ourselves and our society as a whole. As such, he has made it his life's mission to learn as much as he can about the world and its inhabitants. Joseph has worked in many different fields, all with the aim of furthering his knowledge. He has been a teacher, a soldier, and a businessman - but his true passion lies in research. He currently works as a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company, where he is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases that have long been considered incurable. Through diligence and hard work, Ricky Joseph has become one of the foremost experts on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry in the world. His name is known by scientists everywhere, and his work continues to improve the lives of millions.