Why the Leopard Got its Spots

Why have big cats evolved such beautiful and intriguing variation in their colors and markings? British scientists have worked out some answers.

leopard spots photo 1.jpg

NGS stock photo of leopard by Chris Johns

Detailed patterning of the spots or stripes of big cats evolved for camouflage, researchers at the University of Bristol, UK, said today. Analysis of the evolutionary history of the patterns shows they can evolve and disappear relatively quickly, the university explained in a news release.

“Why do leopards have rosette shaped markings but tigers have stripes,” the researchers wondered. “Rudyard Kipling suggested that it was because the leopard moved to an environment ‘full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows,’ but is there any truth in this just-so story?”

The researchers investigated the flank markings of 35 species of wild cats to understand what drives the evolution of such beautiful and intriguing variation, the university explained.

leopard spots photo 2.jpg

NGS stock photo of leopard by Chris Johns

“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. 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.

“The research also explains why, for example, black leopards are common but black cheetahs unknown.”

“The research also explains why, for example, black leopards are common but black cheetahs unknown. Unlike cheetahs, leopards live in a wide range of habitats and have varied behavioural patterns. Having several environmental niches that different individuals of the species can exploit allows atypical colors and patterns to become stable within a population.”


Although a clear link between environment and patterning was established, the study also highlighted some anomalies, the university added.

“For example, cheetahs have evolved or retained spotted patterns despite a strong preference for open habitats, while a number of cats, such as the bay cat and the flat-headed cat, have plain coats despite a preference for closed environments. Why this should be remains unclear.”

The study also highlighted just how few species of cats have vertical stripes.

“Of the 35 species examined, only tigers always had vertically elongated patterns and these patterns were not associated with a grassland habitat, as might be expected. However, tigers seem to be very well camouflaged so this raises the question why vertical stripes are not more common in cats and other mammals.”

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NGS stock photo of tigers by Michael Nichols

Will Allen of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, who led the research, said: “The method we have developed offers insights into cat patterning at many levels of explanation and we are now applying it to other groups of animals.”

“Why the leopard got its spots: relating pattern development to ecology in felids,” by William L. Allen, Innes C. Cuthill, Nicholas E. Scott-Samuel and Roland Baddeley is published in the current issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

tiger stripes photo 2.jpg

NGS stock photo of tiger stripes by Michael Nichols

Posted from media material submitted by the University of Bristol.


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn