The Panda and its Spots

Why do pandas have black and white spots? a student asks.

That is an interesting question and one many people have asked before, including wildlife biologists. The most accepted explanation that I can find is as follows.

Pandas are solitary animals —  they live alone except when breeding or caring for young. They once roamed on thousands of acres of bamboo forest. When their breeding cycle began, they would have to somehow find another panda with which to mate. In all that forest, their striking black and white pattern helped them locate each other. A reverse camouflage as such. And because they show some territoriality, their colors might also warn other pandas they are in the area — a territorial display as such.


So, put simply, the pandas’ black and white fur pattern may have helped them find each other to mate during mating season. During the rest of the year, their “colors” may have warned other pandas to stay out of their territory.

If I might use a silly analogy… think of a clown, with bright red hair, nose and shoes, striped leggings and yellow coat. His bright colored costume might attract kids who want to see a clown, but send most of us, who are afraid of clowns, moving quickly away. Survival instincts are strong in animals.

Now that the bamboo forests are almost gone and what are left are fragmented by highways and development, the pandas’ need for a flashy warning display may not be as helpful, except that it does help biologists monitor and protect them. And for pandas, in this day and age, that might be the most important survival technique yet.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.

One thought on “The Panda and its Spots

  1. I wonder if another aspect of the coloration is that they have no predators, so there has been no evoluntionary pressure to develop a drab coloration.

    Just a thought.

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