The popular perception is that giant pandas are only black and white, yet they can sometimes be various color phases, including brown and white. Several of these brown and white pandas were found in Shaanxi’s Foping National Nature Reserve.

First sighting of a brown and white panda

On the morning of 26 March 1985,1 traveled witii Professor Pan Wenshi and Liu Xuzhuo along with their students, Lyu Zhi, Zeng Zhou and Guo Jianwei from the Conservation Biology Department of Peking University, Beijing. We took off from the Sanguanmiao protection station, heading along a river path heavily laden with frost toward the Daguping protection station 10km downstream. On the way, a young man in his twenties by the name of Lyu Guoyou who was the village head of Daguping in the town of Yueba from Foping county came running in our direction, shouting my name. Upon meeting us, he excitedly gasped out that he had spotted a red giant panda when he drove his ox into the river. The giant panda was lying motionless in a bamboo thicket near the river, and Lyu Guoyou was incredibly surprised that the animal, which typically has a black-and-white coat, had clumps of brown fur.

We eagerly followed Lyu Guoyou along the river and saw the animal lying still with its eyes closed. Each time anyone approached the panda, it opened its eyes just a fraction, appearing quite fatigued and sluggish. The usual black fur was brown, and the mixed fur appeared almost pink in the sunlight. Its muzzle looked very dry and ashen pale. Nearby there was panda feces containing blood and black mucus, indicating some sort of infection, parasitic infestation, or other health condition. I immediately sent Mr. Lyu to the Daguping protection station and cage to the protection station and Foping Nature Reserve to report and ask for a rescue. The protection station staff responded very quickly; bringing milk powder, sugar, and hot water to our location. We tried to feed it some water but at first it pushed the spoon away; yet after we wet its mouth, the panda began licking water from the spoon.

After rehydrating it, the panda appeared a little improved, and a few hours later the veterinarians and leaders from the nature reserve arrived and designed a treatment plan. We carried the panda in a cage to the protection station, where the nights shift supervisors from the administrative authority and a treatment team arrived. Following their consultation they conducted a medical examination on the panda, and it received intensive care day and night until a full recovery two weeks later.

The first sighting of this panda quickly became popular news at home and abroad. It was called the ninth wonder of the world after the Terracotta Warriors. Professor Pan Wenshi named it MDan Dan” implied the meaning of the first discovery of the unique color. Dan Dan was sent to Xi,an Zoo in Xi,an, capital of Shaanxi province, as there were no local panda rescue facilities at that time.

It was later discovered that Dan Dan was a female and she mated naturally with Wan Wan, a male panda also from Foping and gave birth to a cub. Unfortunately the offspring was stillborn. She gave birth a second time to a male cub, Qin Qin, on August 23, 1989. Dan Dan died on September 7, 2000 at an estimated 30 years old in the zoo. His remains were preserved using taxidermy and were placed at the Qinling Human and Nature Museum.

Brown-white pandas have been documented many times

After Dan Dan was discovered, researchers at the Foping Nature Reserve recorded brown and white pandas on multiple occasions.

On June 22, 1991, nature reserve staff Liang Qjhui, Wang Tiejun, and other staff members were conducting field work at Guangtou Mountain ridge, an elevation of 2,700m. They heard a slight noise in the arrow bamboo forest below the cliff, and found a panda cub trailing behind its mother going into the jungle. The little animal, with dumps of brown fur, was barely 1 year old and weighed an estimated 20kg. The staff snapped a picture of this pair before they disappeared into the forest.

On March 29, 1992, staff members from Changqing Forest Bureau and researchers from Peking University rescued a sick brown-white panda at Chaijia valley, Boyangping, Huayang town, Yang county. They put a GPS collar on the panda and after it made a full recovery, released it back into the wild.

Researchers from Foping Nature Reserve observed three male pandas fighting over mating rights at the southern slope of Qinling Mountain 2,500m above sea level in April 1993. Amongst the trio, they observed a brown-white panda, but unfortunately failed to record that moment as they were without a camera.

A brown-white panda was spotted by 6 villagers after it finished drinking in a local river, and passed through a field on its way to the bamboo forest at Zuojiaping, Sanguanmiao village, Foping Nature Reserve in April 2000. Villagers excitedly crowded around the panda and out of fear, it ran into the forest and disappeared.

Gong Huisheng, a researcher of Foping Nature Reserve, and staff members were carrying out field investigations in Fujiawan, Xi River in September 2005. They found a brown-white panda nursing her cub in a cave, and similar to the fore-mentioned instance, the researchers had not brought a camera. When staff members returned to the site the next day, the two pandas had left after being disturbed.

On November 1, 2009, a staff member, Liang Qihui at the Foping Nature Reserve, spotted a panda cub with the unusual coloring. Its eyes were not open yet and it was not yet able to crawl. China Central Television carried a special feature on this discovery. This cub was then rescued to the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue, Breeding, and Research Center. It was named Qi Zai, the seventh brown-white giant panda documented.

At 3:05pm on January 22, 2013, two infrared cameras at the Huangbaiyuan Nature Reserve in Shaanxi province successfully captured two giant panda images, among which was a very rare and unique brown-white panda. More than 50 consecutive photos over 2 minutes clearly showed the movements of this rare panda making its way through the bamboo forest, sniffing a rock curiously, looking at the cameras, and then turning away. It climbed on the rock and disappeared into the bamboo forest.

The reasons for the unusual color remain a mystery

Scientific explanation behind why such odd-colored pandas exist is not yet clear, though some researchers believe it is caused by a genetic mutation. Professor Li Ruqi, a researcher who studies genetics in Peking University, believes there are two kinds of allele, or alternating form of the same gene, in giant pandas. In experiments on cows and beans, there appear to be various coat colors. Small dark brown patches could be observed in the chests of otherwise black pandas and at the lower abdomen area, the hair tips are brown and shafts are white. This attribute is unique to pandas in Qinling Mountains, where the brown-white cub was discovered. Based on this observation, it is believed that the variation may be a recessively inherited genetic trait.