How Did Big Cats Get So Spotty, Stripey and So On?

by Liz Colville

Some might say we already have a good enough answer to this question: Rudyard Kipling proposed how leopards got their spots in the 1902 book Just So Stories. In Kipling’s telling, the leopard’s Ethiopian hunter friend turns his skin from, er, savannah-colored to black to camouflage in the forest where their prey have taken to hiding out. The Ethiopian gives the leopard spots so he can camouflage, too, by fingerprinting some of his excess black onto the leopard’s tawny fur. Lovely! But can we get a scientist in here?

Well, it turns out Kipling was right, “apart from the painting part,” says behavioral ecologist Will Allen in an article in the Guardian. “The leopard got its spots from a life in forested habitats, where it made use of the trees and nocturnal hunting,” whereas “cats that hunt on open, rocky ground by daylight tend to have evolved plain-coloured coats.” As for our domesticated friends, their “camouflaging” seems only coincidentally connected to their environment, e.g. sweaters, furniture.

Photo by Snowmanradio via Wikipedia