Pandas' Iconic Colors Turn Out to Be Good For Something Aside From Looking Cute

Although the panda may not appear to have the same camouflage protection that some lizards and many other underwater creatures, a new study shows how its fur colors help it blend in the background.
Although this idea isn't new, it's the first time the camouflage abilities of the giant panda (Ailuropoda mylanoleuca), have been tested in an advanced image analysis technique using rare photos taken in their natural habitat.

It's only when you see them in the mountains that you can truly appreciate how effective their fur shades are at hiding them from view. This is what the image processing algorithms used here prove.

Spot the panda... One of the images used for the study. (FuWen Wii)

According to Nick Scott-Samuel, a UK psychologist, giant pandas are conspicuous because of their short viewing distances and unusual backgrounds. "When we see them in photos or at the Zoo, it's almost always from very close up and against backgrounds that don't reflect their natural habitat.

"The giant panda looks quite well camouflaged from a predator's point of view."

Researchers discovered that giant pandas blend well with dark areas of forest and tree trunks, and the black fur patches help them blend in with snow and waxy foliage. A few pandas have brown patches of pale fur that can be used as an intermediate camouflage color.

Researchers also discovered that the giant pandas are harder to spot due to the presence of distinct black and white fur patches. This camouflage technique is called disruptive coloration.

The last piece of research was a comparison with other animals widely believed to be well camouflaged. When a special color mapping technique, known as Quantitative Colour and Pattern Analysis (QCPA), was applied to the images, the panda was able hold its own against the other species.

Spot the panda again... Another image used in the study. (FuWen Wii)

The QCPA approach, which is a combination of color and pattern, weighs both the luminance and the colors. It considers how colors are placed next to each other, the edges of patterns, and the level of contrast between them.

Ossi Nokelainen from Finland's University of Jyvskyl says that "rare photographic evidence" allowed them to see the giant panda in its natural environment.

"Using state-of the-art image analysis, these images were treated as if they had been seen by predator surrogates. We used applied vision modeling techniques to examine their disruptive coloration and we also used the state-of the-art image analysis to do this."

Nokelainen believes the new study will "bust the myth", that pandas are more visible when they are being observed in their natural habitat. A close-up photograph taken at a zoo might not reflect the natural environment in which pandas live.

Humans aren't the ones that hunt the giant panda. They are prey to predators like tigers, leopards and wild dogs, particularly as panda cubs. However, none of these animals has vision as sharp as ours.

Tim Caro, a biologist at the University of Bristol, says that he knew they were onto something when he received photographs from China from Chinese colleagues. "I couldn't see the giant panda on the photo and I knew we were on the right track," he said.

"If my primate eyes couldn't see it, it meant that the would-be carnivorous prey might not be able too. This was just a matter objectively.

Scientific Reports published the research.