Why giant pandas are black and white

Researchers have gone to extreme lengths to answer one seemingly simple question - why is the giant panda black and white?

Well, finding the answer wasn't as black and white as the University of California, Davis study's subject.

The team's leader Professor Tim Caro, who also answered why the zebra was black and white (to deter biting flies), gathered his team to painstakingly look at thousands of panda photos.

While spending your days gazing at China's national icon seems like an easy task, study co-author Professor Ted Stankowich from California State University, called it a "Herculean effort".

It involved "finding and scoring thousands of images and scoring more than 10 areas per picture from over 20 possible colours".

"Sometimes it takes hundreds of hours of hard work to answer what seems like the simplest of questions: Why is the panda black and white?" he says.

It found the giant panda's dual colouring served two purposes - camouflage and communication.

giant panda china getty
Can you spot the panda? (Getty)

But to discover that, they first had to overcome a very unique problem.

"Understanding why the giant panda has such striking colouration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult," says Prof Caro, of UC Davis department of wildlife, fish and conservation biology.

So instead of looking at the animal as a whole, they decided to look at its distinct parts.

That allowed them to compare the different areas of fur to the dark and light colouring of 195 other carnivore species and 39 bear subspecies to try to figure out what purpose they had.

The team found most of the panda - the face, neck, belly and rear - is white to help it hide in the snow. The black arms and legs are to help it camouflage in shaded areas.

Pandas find themselves roaming in all kinds of environments (Getty)
Pandas find themselves roaming in all kinds of environments, including the snow (Getty)

Markings on the head could serve as a form of communication.

The study, published in Behavioural Ecology, suggests dark ears could show a sense of ferocity - a warning to would-be predators. The dark eye patches aren't from staying up late at night; they might help pandas recognise each other.

They suggest the markings are needed partly because the giant panda's diet consists largely of bamboo and they can't digest many other plants.

That means they can't store enough fat to hibernate for winter as some other bears can so they need to be active year-round over long distances from tropical forests to snowy mountains.

The animals are still very rare, though a 17 percent increase in population between 2011 and 2014 has led to their status being downgraded from 'endangered' to 'vulnerable' for the first time.

It's thought there are around 1865 adults living in the wild. There's no hard data on how many cubs there are, but official estimates would push the population over 2000.