The highly contrasting pattern of the giant pandas helps them blend in with their natural surroundings.
Researchers at the University of Bristol, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Jyväskylä have used advanced image analysis techniques to demonstrate, in a counterintuitive fashion, that single stains work for disguise the giant panda. The results were published in Scientific reports.
While most mammals are dull brown and gray, there are a small number of well-known and intriguing exceptions such as zebras, skunks, and orcas. The giant panda is perhaps the most famous of all.
The international team analyzed rare photographs of giant pandas, taken in their natural environment. They found that their patches of black coat mix with dark undertones and tree trunks, while their white patches match foliage and snow when present. Additionally, the infrequent pale brown coat tones match the background color, providing an intermediate color that bridges the gap between the very dark and very light visual elements of the natural habitat. The results are consistent whether seen by human, feline or canine vision models; the last two represent the predators of pandas.
Next, the researchers looked at a second form of camouflage – disruptive coloring – in which highly visible borders on an animal’s surface break its outline – in the case of the panda, the borders between large black and white patches of fur. . They found that giant pandas exhibit this form of defensive coloration, especially at longer viewing distances.
Finally, the researchers used a new color map technique to compare a background similarity metric across a variety of species, as well as the giant panda. This comparative analysis confirmed that the substantive resemblance of the giant panda falls firmly within other species that are traditionally considered to be well camouflaged.
Professor Tim Caro from the School of Biological Sciences in Bristol explained: “I knew we were on to something when our Chinese colleagues sent us photographs of the nature and I couldn’t see the giant panda in the photo. If I couldn’t see it with my good primate eyes, that meant potential carnivorous predators with their poor eyesight might not see it either. It was simply a question of demonstrating it objectively.
Lead author Dr Ossi Nokelainen added: “The sparse photographic evidence has allowed us to examine for the first time the appearance of the giant panda in its natural environment. With the help of advanced image analysis, we were able to process these images as if the pandas had been seen by their predatory surrogates using applied vision modeling techniques and also explore their disruptive coloration. The comparative results totally shatter the myth that giant pandas are openly visible in their natural habitat. “
Bristol School of Psychological Science Professor Nick Scott-Samuel said: up close, and often in a context that does not reflect their natural habitat. From a more realistic predator’s perspective, the giant panda is actually pretty well camouflaged.