How leopards got their spots

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Leopard spots are more than just a pretty pattern, new research has revealed.

The rosette-shaped spots, which are different on every creature, may have evolved to help with camouflage, scientists at the University of Bristol have found.

A study first published in scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B revealed that cats living in wooded areas, in the trees and who prowled at low light levels were most likely to be patterned, especially with complex or irregular designs.

The research also explains why black leopards are common, but black cheetahs are unknown. Leopards live in a variety of habitats and have a wider range of behaviour, with their spots designed to provide camouflage even while the cat is moving.

Will Allen, who led the research, told the UK Telegraph that the spotted pattern allowed the creatures to have camouflage in a wider variety of habitats than rivals such as black leopards, “who stand out in any environment other than dense rainforest and darkness.”

An analysis of the evolutionary history of the patterns suggests that they can appear within a species and disappear again relatively quickly. This implies that each coat is tailored to a particular environment.

There are some anomalies to these patterns. The cheetah, which has a preference for open areas, has evolved or retained its spots, while the flat-headed cat lives in closed environments and has a plain coat.

The study also demonstrated how few cat species have vertical stripes. The tiger is the only species that always has elongated stripe patterns, which were not associated with grassland. However, the tiger is well camouflaged for its environment, leading researchers to wonder why more cats haven’t developed stripes as patterns.

Mr Allen 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.”


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