Photo: flickr/Chi KingPandas are weird bears - not only do these vegetarians survive solely on bamboo, but their coloring is also one of the most distinctive in the animal kingdom. Why are pandas black and white? Does this distinct color pattern serve a function? Here, scientists set out to explain why pandas look the way they do. The researchers propose that it's not about temperature regulation; rather, the white parts of the panda allow it to hide in a snowy background, while its black shoulders and legs help it hide in shade. Not only that, pandas might use their dark ears and eye marks to recognize individuals and communicate. But perhaps more importantly, the black and white coloring has made pandas the butt of some really bad jokes. The effect these jokes have on the survival of the giant panda remains to be tested. Why is the giant panda black and white? "Although the external appearances of most mammals are drab browns and grays used to match their backgrounds, certain species stand out as exceptions, perhaps the most notable being the giant panda. Using a comparative phylogenetic approach, we examined associations between different pelage regions and socioecological variables across carnivores and ursid subspecies to shed light on the giant panda’s black and white pelage coloration. Analyses of fur color and background environments suggest that the giant panda’s white face, nape, dorsum, flank, belly, and rump are adapted for crypsis against a snowy background, whereas its black shoulders and legs are adapted for crypsis in shade. Dark markings on the head are not used in crypsis, however, but in communication: Dark ears may be involved with signaling intent about ferocity whereas dark eye marks may serve in individual recognition. There is no compelling support for their fur color being involved in temperature regulation, disrupting the animal’s outline, or in reducing eye glare. We infer that the giant panda’s unique pelage coloration serves a constellation of functions that enable it to match its background in different environments and to communicate using facial features." Related content: Flashback Friday: An unusual finding during screening colonoscopy: a cockroach! » Why did the panda’s ancestors ditch meat for bamboo?Perhaps zebra stripes have nothing to do with avoiding lions after all!Scientists finally figure out why whales like to jump out of the water.