It's a question that has bedeviled kindergartners, and now apparently PhDs have the answer: Why do giant pandas have spots? To find out, a team of California researchers compared the black and white regions of the panda's fur to more than 200 other species, and then analyzed those findings in relation to environmental and behavioral conditions, Science reports.
Since pandas don't hibernate like their bear cousins, the team ruled out that color helps regulate body temperature. Writing in the journal Behavioral Ecology, the researchers theorize that white patches on the panda's face, rump, and belly provide camouflage from predators in snowy habitats, while dark limbs help the panda hide in forests.
And those black ears that you might think are adorable are meant to help the panda communicate "ferocity" to predators. Dark eye patches aren't meant to resist glare, as the experts thought, but instead probably help the panda recognize friends and ward off competitors.
Piebald patches evolved as a sort of compromise since the bamboo eaters are active year-round, per Science. Lead author Tim Caro says in a statement that the panda's unique coloring posed "a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance." The "breakthrough" came, he explains, when researchers treated "each part of the body as an independent area." The panda question wasn't Caro's first bicolor-related puzzle.
He once donned a zebra costume as part of a quest to figure out why the animals have stripes, per UC Davis. The answer? To stop pesky horseflies from biting them.
(Pandas are off the endangered list.)
This article originally appeared on Newser: Mystery Solved: Why Pandas Are Black and White