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Causes Of Wild Cat Markings Investigated

October 20, 2010

Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” researchers from the University of Bristol investigated the markings of a vast array of wild cats in an attempt to determine exactly what caused the felines to develop their patterns.

According to a university press release dated October 19, Dr. Will Allen of the university’s School of Experimental Psychology and his colleagues “investigated the flank markings of 35 species of wild cats to understand what drives the evolution of such beautiful and intriguing variation. They captured detailed differences in the visual appearance of the cats by linking them to a mathematical model of pattern development.”

“They found that cats living in dense habitats, in the trees, and active at low light levels, are the most likely to be patterned, especially with particularly irregular or complex patterns,” the press release added. “This suggests that detailed aspects of patterning evolve for camouflage. Analysis of the evolutionary history of the patterns shows they can evolve and disappear relatively quickly.”

However, while the researchers say that their work explains why black leopards are commonplace but black cheetahs are not, they admit that they also encountered “some anomalies.” For example, cheetahs have retained their spots, despite living primarily in open habitats. Also, they found that some predominantly closed-environment feline species, including the bay cat and the flat-headed cat, have not developed patterns on their coats.

“We’ve shown that the usefulness of patterns for species’ survival can be related to a mathematical model of how the pattern arises and what that does is it gives more complex information on why the leopard has its spots,” Allen told BBC News Science Reporter Katia Moskvitch on Wednesday. “When you place cat patterning over the evolutionary tree of cats, you can see that patterning emerges and disappears very frequently within the cat family, which is kind of interesting–it suggests that perhaps particular genetic mechanisms can solve very different appearances of cats.”

The Bristol University study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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