Stripes and spots of fur of cats evolve rapidly, leading to a variety of patterns that help these animals to blend in with their habitat, suggests a British study at the University of Bristol published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers examined the marks on the sides of 35 species of wild cats to understand what drives the evolution of its variations and, by linking them to a mathematical model of pattern development, recorded detailed differences in the visual appearance of the cats. Among other things, scientists discovered that cats living in dense habitats, in the trees, and were active under reduced light, were more likely to develop particularly irregular or complex patterns. This suggests that detailed aspects of patterns evolved for camouflage.
The research also explains why, for example, black leopards are common but black cheetahs are unknown. Unlike cheetahs, leopards live in a wide range of habitats and have varied behavioral patterns. The existence of several environmental niches that different individuals of the species can exploit allows atypical colors and patterns to become stable within a population.
Although the researchers established a clear link between the environment and patterns, the study also highlights some anomalies. For example, cheetahs have developed or maintained spotted patterns despite a strong preference for open habitats, while many cats like the bay cat and flat-headed cat have smooth coats despite a preference for closed environments . The reasons are still unknown.
The study also showed that few species of cats have vertical stripes. Of the thirty species examined, only tigers had exhibited vertical patterns, and these were not associated with a grassland habitat as might be expected. However, I am not prevent tigers are hidden very well.
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