Pondering Black And White In A Colorful World : The Protojournalist Sometimes the most colorful occurrences in nature are in black-and-white.
NPR logo Pondering Black And White In A Colorful World

Pondering Black And White In A Colorful World

Weird, really, that some animals and plants are marked in black and white.

They exist in the multihued landscape like old photos in a Technicolor movie. And they stick out like Rorschachs on a rainbow.

But there is beauty in their plainness. Clarity in their starkness. And often mystery in their evolutionary motion.

Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo
A 1-year-old panda at the San Diego Zoo.
Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo

Take the giant panda, for instance.

"We really don't know why pandas are black and white," says Megan Owen, a conservation program manager at the San Diego Zoo who works with giant pandas. "There has long been speculation that the black and white coloration provides some degree of camouflage in their habitat — especially when snow is abundant. But there has also long been speculation that the coloration provides a sort of anti-camouflage, enhancing their ability to find conspecifics during the mating season."

However, Owen adds, "to my knowledge, neither of these theories are well supported."

Black pearl lily.

Other examples of pen-and-ink drawings in oil painting surroundings include the magpie, the zebra, the black pearl lily and

the Weidemeyer's admiral butterfly. "Butterflies evolved with plants," says David Parshall of the Ohio Lepidopterists. Through natural selection, he says, successful gene pools slowly selected coloration and other attributes for various reasons, such as predators and climate.

The white admiral butterfly in the Eastern United States and Weidemeyer's admiral in the Western United States, David says, "are forest and forest-edge butterflies living in broken-shaded environments. It's easy to see how predators like birds would have a hard time seeing them."

Black-and-white camouflage, he adds, "is just one of the factors aiding some butterfly species over the course of the millenniums."