What Gives Qizai the Brown Panda His Unique Color?

By AilieHM - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
By AilieHM - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons / By AilieHM - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Visitors to the Foping National Nature Reserve animal sanctuary in the Chinese province of Shaanxi know there’s a star attraction waiting: Qizai, the 8-year-old panda who presents with brown and white fur, a sharp contrast from the typical black and white color scheme seen in conventional giant pandas. Qizai is the only known panda in captivity to display this anomaly. What caused it?

There’s not much of a parental history to draw from. Qizai was abandoned by his mother when he was just 2 months old, although eyewitnesses report that she was black and white. The best guesses are that his fur is the result of a genetic mutation due to inbreeding or possibly environmental factors: Pandas in the Qinling mountain range region where Qizai was found often display a tuft of brown fur on their chests. That could mean the animals are reacting to an environmental prompt that can affect their pigmentation.

A panda named Dan-Dan was the first panda with brown fur seen in the wild. When she was discovered in 1985, she mated with a regular panda and had a black and white male. Qizai’s keepers at Foping are hoping to mate Qizai at some point to see if any potential gene will be passed on to his offspring. Until then, he's apparently quite content eating bamboo and enjoying the spoils of having a full-time handler, the origin of his unique appearance remaining a mystery.