I’ve just written a news story about the mysterious brown-and-white panda for Nature’s online news service (see here). From a journalistic perspective, it’s a very nice story indeed. A mystery, a dose of good science, lots of top scientists, potential for debate, a rare photograph of the most recent sighting.
This variety only seems to turn up in the Qinling Mountains, mainly in one reserve and then only rarely. In total, there are seven reliable sightings of this variety since the first was spotted 25 years ago in 1985. To date, there has been relatively little serious discussion about this rare form and hopefully this news story will inspire some.
Several possible explanations exist: Early on, the brown form was written off as a freak mutation that had somehow suddenly appeared in isolated individuals. But it looks to be more complicated, with some gene variants for brownness floating around in the population, possibly interacting with some environmental factor.
Inbreeding would make the appearance of the brown pandas more common but the genetic data suggests this is not occurring. The recent publication of the giant panda genome in Nature (and see my post about it here) should help unpick the genetic basis of the brown morph, which in turn should shed light on whether inbreeding could be part of the explanation.