Why Am I Black and White?

Posted at 10:33 am December 21, 2006 by Kay Ferguson

 Bai Yun with puzzle feederI’m asked this question many times a day by our guests at the San Diego Zoo. Researchers aren’t really sure why giant pandas are black and white, but it certainly enhances their beauty, and you can’t beat that smile they always seem to have. I love their smiles but I must remember I don’t know a good bear day from a bad one and with that smile it is hard to determine just what they are thinking!

Could their color be because they are solitary? Could it be because they need the territory for their food source and can be seen at a distance? I think that’s a possibility; they really don’t like to share their bamboo. In just a few months Bai Yun (pictured with a puzzle feeder) will not want to share her food with Su Lin. She will want her daughter out of her space and won’t continue her relationship with her baby. Remember, they are bears, and most of the time pandas are solitary animals.

When a baby panda is born it isn’t black and white. I’ve seen three babies after their births; one was shrimp pink and the other two were snowy white. When they are about five days old their skin starts turning black in places, and by the time they are two weeks old they are black and white. Oh, so tiny and watching them grow is so exciting: you watch the fur come in black and white and they begin to look like a panda. When they look at you, you just want to hug and squeeze them but, alas, they are bears.

Black and white is their color and they are just too beautiful not to visit them while they are with us here in San Diego at the Zoo. I hope you will take the time during the holidays to stop by the Giant Panda Research Station and say hello to the bears. They love company as long as you use those quiet voices.

Kay Ferguson is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.

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20 Responses to “Why Am I Black and White?”

  1. barbara says:

    Kay, there is a old chinese legend that says a little shepherd girl saved a baby panda from a leopard; in turn, she was killed. the pandas threw ashes on themselves in mourning for the girl. as they wiped the tears away they made dark stains around their eyes and as they hugged each other their paws stained the arms and legs. ever since, they have worn these markings out of respect for the shepherd girl. this probably isn’t the real reason, but you never know.

  2. Kathy in Ohio says:

    That’s a lovely tale to explain the colors! And once again, I must say what a joy it is to view ALL of these pandas in the US. There’s nothing more beautiful and touching, than to watch Su Lin dozing way up in her tree, Tai nursing and mom resting on her side, and the new girl in Atlanta who is growing so fast (and sleeping so peacefully)! Merry Christmas to ALL at San Diego, Washington DC, and Atlanta zoos; all those who are so informative, patient and caring of these wonderful creatures.

  3. Margaret says:

    Thanks, Kay, for another wonderful education in panda lore. Thanks also, Barbara, for sharing the Chinese legend of the panda black and white.

    With Su Lin up in the trees so much, it would appear that her separation from Bai Yun could be relatively soon, and very unstressful for both. They appear to be leading somewhat separate lives already. How would Bai Yun react if she were let out into a separated yard today while Su Lin was in her usual perch high up in the air? Would Bai Yun be concerned that Su Lin was out of sight, or vice versa, would Su Lin be concerned that she could not see her mother below her? She does not appear to need her mother’s presence except for the daily nursing, and occasional play session. Mei Sheng the ” momma’s boy” would seem to have had a more difficult time being separated from his mother, and he did fine.

    With a panda needing every bite of the 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo they eat per day, I can understand why they would not want to share. I notice that Tai Shan is eating more and more, and that his bamboo piles are put far away from his mother’s. Su Lin appears to eat hers next to her mother, so are they taking their portion from the same bunch? I have rarely seen Bai and Su together, so Bai doesn’t seem to have had to fend off Su yet.

  4. Eunice Cote says:

    I would really like an update on how much our little girl weighs these days!! She has been munching on more bamboo. Also, are you anticipating that she will be small like Gao Gao and Mei Sheng?

    Thank you!

  5. Margot says:

    Thank you, Kay, for your information on panda coloring. It seems like just yesterday that Su Lin was black and white and pink because of Bai Yun’s frequent grooming sessions. While it’s hard to believe all that time has passed, Su has certainly grown into a beautiful and self-reliant bear. Here’s hoping her weaning will go smoothly.

    Happy Holidays to everyone at SDZ, especially those who give so much time, love, and devotion to the wonderful pandas. Hope 2007 will be a year of health and peace for all creatures on our beautiful earth.

  6. barbara says:

    To everyone at sdz: Peace, love and Joy and much happiness to all.

    To all our bears: Panda claws is watching you so you better be good or you won’t get any treats.

    To all the keepers, narrators who have brought so much joy to all: Happy Holidays

    And to all my fellow pandaholics: Peace on earth and a joyous holiday.

  7. Jeri says:

    Can you tell us why our precious girl’s weight has not been posted since October 11? I look every day. Several of us here at the lawfirm where we work use your panda cam and the adorable girl child – as well as Mom, Dad and Mei Sheng – as a stress buster. We keep the site pulled up in the background and quickly send out an email to other known watchers whenever we see Su Lin down on the ground. We all wonder why her weight has not been posted. We cannot get enough of her – even now as she grows older. It’s heartbreaking to know that she will leave us one day even though we realize the necessity of that.

    Moderator’s note: Su Lin weighed 69 pounds (31.3 kilograms) today. We’ll update her bio and news page shortly.

  8. Cathy B. says:

    A huge thank you to the SDZ staff for taking such wonderful, loving care of our favorite black and white creatures and for giving us the gift of the 24/7 PandaCam!

    Hugs and kisses to the Pandas all over the world!

    Thank you to all my fellow panda-holics for all the interesting messages, poems, songs, etc. dedicated to our furry friends!

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!!

  9. Cheryl says:

    The picture of Bai Yun is so cute! It looks like she is auditioning for the circus – practicing balancing the ball (puzzle feeder) on her nose while doing ballet. I can imagine her in a tutu! What a cute bear!

  10. narrator1 says:

    Thanks so much for your blogs and most of all your concern for Su Lin and Mei Sheng, Bai Yun and, of course, mighty Gao Gao. Barb, thanks for the legend. It has been hanging around here for many years but it’s always nice as a refresher on folk lore; I think of this legend often when I look at them. Thanks again. Kay

  11. Lisa Anderson says:

    I am enjoying the picture of Bai Yun with the puzzle feeder enrichment toy. It is such fun to watch the pandas wrestle with this, and get the ” maraca” in just the right position to allow the treats to come out. Bai looks beautiful as always, and what a smart mother bear she is!

    Happy holidays to all at SDZ and also on this blog, and may your new year be peaceful and blessed!

  12. Chari says:

    Hi, Kay! Been keeping up with all 3 panda babies this whole year and a half! Su Lin and Tai Shan are still great crowd pleasers at 1 1/2 years old at their respective zoos. And now, we have the newest cub in Atlanta named Mei Lan that is just growing like a weed and is so cute! She just got her name last week, and from watching their pandacam, she’s figuring out how her legs move and trying to do some crawling. Brings back memories of Su Lin learning how to crawl when she was that age, doesn’t it?? Mei Lan is 3 1/2 months old now; Lun Lun, her mom, is taking very good care of her. Keep up with the great work you all are doing at San Diego Zoo, OK? You all have a very good Christmas holiday season, and a great New Year in 2007. I’m hoping that the pandas at the Memphis zoo will be successful in breeding and having a baby panda cub in the next year or two! That will be exciting whenever that does happen!

    Merry Christmas everybody!!!!

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  13. charleen says:

    bai yun is ssssoooo cute. she is sooo pretty. i love her. i love pandas!!! she is getting to be so big now!! very cute panda!!

  14. FC says:

    Kay, I have enjoyed reading the blogs for a few weeks now. The pandas are very interesting. Hope to visit the San Diego Zoo soon. The pictures are so cute! I can’t imagine how much fun it would be to watch them for a while.

  15. Cathy G. (L.A.) says:

    Hello to all of the panda lovers who post here and to the wonderful SDZoo staff who care for the pandas and those who are the ” support” folks, too. We’re all so fortunate that we have been able to watch Su Lin grow and develop into a lovely young panda this year. I’m looking forward to seeing ” our” four bears at the Zoo very soon! It’ll be the first time that it’s been possible to do that and should be a wonderful chance to see them live.

    I hope that you all have a wonderful holiday season and a very Happy New Year!

  16. Rita says:

    It has been nice to see Su Lin down from the trees a lot these past few weeks. Looks like she is taking lessons on how to eat bamboo. Know there has to have been a lot of happy zoo visitors to see mother and daughter sitting together.

  17. Jean says:

    Happy Holidays! It’s great to see Su Lin and Bai Yun enjoying a bamboo feast together on this holiday.

    Regarding the blog, whenever the colors of the pandas are brought up, it always reminds me of Dan Dan – the famous brown and white panda. I wonder if she ever wondered why she was brown and white and all the other pandas, including her cub, were black and white. I do. Unfortunately, I read recently that her only son in captivity passed away without having any children. Hopefully there are some of her relatives still living in the wild. I’ve had a hard time finding much information about Dan Dan on the internet so I was surprised to see some video of her in a National Geographic Special called ” Secrets of the Wild Panda” from my local library. It’s a great video for any panda lover because Peking University zoologist Pan Wenshi follows a mama panda bear (Jiao Jiao) and baby cub in the wild to see why panda cubs thrived in the wild but often died in captivity. Fortunately, today we don’t have the problem. 🙂 It’s a great video if you love panda cubs like I do and also would like to see Dan Dan. See if you can check it out from your library or find it somewhere else.

  18. Kristi in TX says:

    Thanks, Kay, for this interesting topic…I’ve always thought the pandas’ color is for thermoregulation as well as camoflage. They are such beautiful animals to have evolved in such a unique coloration. I was thinking the color black is an excellent heat absorber so the panda’s ears, nose, legs and back absorb heat in their climate to keep these vulnerable areas from losing body heat where it’s really needed. The panda’s abdomen being white doesn’t need to retain heat because this is the part of the body that doesn’t lose heat as readily (it being the location of most body fat). But their eye patches make great sun glasses for reducing glare from the sun and snow. I like to think of these bears as wearing a jacket, boots, and a pair of ear muffs and goggles!

    Whatever the reason for their coloration, the Giant Panda is a wonderfully unique creature that has evolved for a specific reason and for me that reason is to love a beautiful, sweet animal in a sometimes really bad world….

    I also want to wish everyone at the Giant Panda Research Station a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. hope for more panda births in the next year. I also want to send my Christmas wishes to Bai Yun, Su Lin, Gao Gao and Mei Sheng: my wish for them to have a wonderful Christmas and New Year too! I’m so happy they got their Christmas presents and cannot wait to see Gao Gao and Mei Sheng hanging out in their new panda hammock!

  19. Virgil says:

    Kay, What great information on the Pandas. I did not know they were so versitle and ” Playful” . I was also wondering why they were black and white. Maybe it is from their orginal habitat and needed the colors to blend into their surroundings. Boy this was really interesting and I hope to get to the zoo to see them. You have such a intersting job and I see you really enjoy what you do. Thanks for being there for all the visitors.

  20. Margaret says:

    Kay, I love the picture of Bai Yun with the puzzle feeder! I saw Tai Shan with one for the first time yesterday. He knocked it around many times to get the food out. Mei Xiang was in another room, and finally came to get her share. She kept batting it away from him until he lost interest and went to find treats and toys elsewhere. Then I noticed they also gave one to Tian Tian. He just kept head butting it to get the food to drop out. He was very noisy! As with the research on which paws the various pandas use to eat their food, it is interesting to see how they get the food out of the feeder. Bai and Mei both hold it upside down and let the food fall into their mouth. The first time I saw them do it, I thought they were drinking out of a gourd. The males I have seen so far just bang it around with brute force. No ettiquette! I wonder if the girls were smarter and figured out how to hold it and shake it and get the food directly into their mouths. The boys’ clumsy way of getting it out inevitably causes some to drop and be scattered and lost.