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Panda Updates – Friday, March 12

Even after being at the Zoo for eight years, I am always learning something new, and that is often thanks to the excellent questions our guests ask us! As a swing keeper I work with many species, so I’ll never be able to know everything about all of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn as much as possible! Today I was stumped by a question that seems obvious: “Why are red pandas red?” To be honest, I had not thought about it much before. Now that the question has been presented, it’s time to find out!
Many animals have fur colors that allow them to camouflage, like the mottled white and gray coat of a snow leopard that helps it blend in with its snowy, rocky environment, or that have specific functions, like the eye spots on the back of a tiger’s ears, which may help a cub follow its mother or make other predators think they have eyes on the backs of their heads. Sharks tend to be darker on top to blend in with the ocean depths and lighter on bottom to blend in with the light shallows, an effect called countershading.  

But that’s my swing keeper brain trying to pull from what I know about other animals to answer this question. It’s time to stop generalizing about what might be and research what function the coat color serves in the red panda. Just looking at a red panda and knowing that they live in forested areas, it seems like that red coat would stick out amid all that greenery. As it turns out, red pandas live in trees that are often covered in a reddish-brown moss. The trees are also spotted with white lichen. Now it’s starting to make more sense how a red and white face could provide camouflage in their natural environment. There’s also a theory that the reddish streaks below their eyes may help keep the sun out of their eyes, like the black paint on a football player or the malar stripes on a cheetah. 

One last thing doesn’t quite make sense, though. Sharks’ undersides are light colored to blend in with the bright shallows of the ocean when fish below them look up. A red panda’s underside and legs are generally black, which isn’t going to blend in too well with the sky when animals look up at them from the ground. Except in this case, the animals are going to be looking at a sky crisscrossed with tree branches, so a red panda with a black underside sitting on a tree branch is going to blend in with its branch rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. The stripes on their tail are likely an example of disruptive camouflage, which works by breaking up colors into segments and making it harder to determine the true outline of a shape. 

And all that information came from one question! That’s why we keepers are always grateful for your questions- they sometimes help us learn, too! At Zoo Atlanta, we try to never simply say “I don’t know.” The better answer is, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together!” Thanks for learning with me! 

Michelle E.
Keeper III, Mammals

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