Though Rudyard Kipling wrote how leopards can’t change their spots, modern science has created a more accurate picture. A recent study shows that leopards adapt to their environment, even going so far as changing their spots. Learn how… — Global Animal

Sydney Morning Herald, Nicky Phillips

Rudyard Kipling was right: leopards can change their spots over time to adapt to their environment.

The big cats’ black pattern may not have been hand-painted by an Ethiopian as Kipling suggested but scientists have discovered the complexity and diversity of leopards’ coats and those of most wild felines are directly linked to their habitat.

British researchers looked at photographs of 35 species, ex- cluding domestic moggies, and grouped them according to coat design: plain, patterned or variable. The coats were compared with the type of environment each cat lived in.

Cats with patterns, such as leopards, tigers and snow leopards, lived almost exclusively in closed environments. Those with irregular patterns were more likely to be active at night and live in tropical forests.

In open environments, especially mountainous regions, the likes of lions and jungle cats often had plain coats.

Behaviour had a bearing on design – for example, cats that spent time in trees were especially likely to have irregular and complex patterns.

The size of the cat or size of the prey, however, had no effect on patterns and there also was no link to the animals’ social behaviour, dispelling the myth that decorative coats were related to social signalling, said the Bristol University researchers.

Can A Leopard Change Its Spots? ”[The] findings support the hypothesis that [cat] flank patterns function as background-matching camouflage,” said the authors, whose findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

They said cats stalked prey until they were close enough to capture it with a pounce or rush.

”As hunts are more successful when an attack is initiated from shorter distances, cats benefit from remaining undetected for as long as possible and camouflage helps achieve this,” they said.

This made patterned cats better suited to Kipling’s forests ”full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows”. It was also likely that patterns evolved to resemble the size, shape and variability of elements in the background environment, the researchers said.

However, the designs of some cats, such as cheetahs and black spotted cats that had retained spots despite spending much of their time on open plains, made them ”camouflage outliers”.

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/practical-cats-do-not-develop-just-any-dots-20101020-16ud0.html

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