Rudyard Kipling’s story of how the leopard got its spots has now been proved to be not so far off the truth.
Scientists at the University of Bristol have analysed images of 37 species of cat – from wildcat to the clouded leopard – and converted their images into mathematical formulae. These equations were then matched against data for the habitat and behaviour of the various cats, this included where they lived (e.g. savannah, forest, mountains) and how they hunted.
The leader of the research team said “We found that cats which live in closed habitats such as forests are much more likely to be patterned, particularly with irregular or complex patterns, than those which live in open habitats.” Complex irregular patterns appear to be good camouflage in dense tropical forest for creatures such as nocturnal hunters like jaguars, “which spend more time active in trees at lower light levels.”
Conversely, cats which live and hunt in the open, like pumas (also known as cougars), tend to have a non-patterned fur. The simple regular spots of the leopard give it camouflage when stalking in the grasslands and rocks of the savannah and while sleeping in the branches of trees.
The coat patterns of big cats have changed over thousands of years as the various species adapt to changes in the habitat. He said, “cats have evolved rapidly to occupy enviromental niches and their patterning has adapted accordingly in most cases.”
So the question for your cat snoozing on the sofa regarding his or her coat markings is:- “Are you a jungle or a desert cat?”