The Scientific Reason So Many Animals Are Black and White

Nature’s most basic color palette supplies its owners with a surprising array of survival techniques.

Think of flamboyance in the animal kingdom, and a colorful menagerie springs to mind: a parrot’s rainbow plumage or the showy scales of a tropical fish. Mammals tend to be less vibrant than other animal groups, but that doesn’t mean they are less visually distinctive. In fact, many of the most striking beasts on the planet come in only two colors: black and white.

Despite the basic palette, these high-contrast markings represent some of nature’s most diverse evolutionary choices. For some mammals, black-and-white coloring is a way to warn off predators. For others, it’s an insect repellent. For still others, it creates a clever cloak. Spend some time exploring what science has discovered about these animals’ appearances, and you’ll see that basic black and white isn’t so basic after all.

Zebra: No-Bite Stripes

WK_NatGeo-Animals_US180373Daisy Chung for Reader's Digest

Zebras’ thin coats make them more vulnerable than long-haired animals to biting flies that carry disease. But the coats’ stripes deter flies from landing on zebras, for reasons that scientists are still investigating.

Blackbuck (male): Shadow Caster

WK_NatGeo-Animals_US180373Daisy Chung for Reader's Digest

In bright sun, the buck’s white stomach counteracts the shadow cast by his back, allowing him to appear one color and two-dimensiona­l—essentially hiding from predators in his own shadow.

Skunk: Defense Mechanism

WK_NatGeo-Animals_US180373Daisy Chung for Reader's Digest

Depending on the species, black skunks may wear white spots that act as camouflage or white stripes that signal enemies to beware their smelly spray. Check out these other animal species that are secretly geniuses.

Badger: Ferocious Mask

WK_NatGeo-Animals_US180373Daisy Chung for Reader's Digest

Even when a badger is crouched in its burrow, its bold facial stripes can be seen. Zoologists say the warning coloration helps the small mammal deter predators.

Giant Panda: Complex Patchwork

WK_NatGeo-Animals_US180373Daisy Chung for Reader's Digest

Recent insights into panda coloring have come from studying each body part separately. Black ears indicate ferocity, and distinct eye patches aid in individual recognition. The panda’s white body camouflages it against snow, while its dark limbs help it hide in forests, a compromise derived from its poor bamboo diet: Bamboo doesn’t let pandas build up enough fat to hibernate, forcing them to spend winters in the snow. Surprised? Make sure you stop believing these 23 “facts” about animals you have all wrong as well.

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest