Rudyard Kipling was half-right, say William Allen and colleagues of the University of Bristol, UK.
The team googled pictures of big cats and matched their coats to computer-generated patterns. The resulting classification was used to test the relationship between a cat’s patterning, where it lives, and how it hunts. The researchers found that nocturnal tree-dwellers have evolved complex coats to match a dappled, dark forest, while cats stalking the open plains tended to be more plain.
One exception is the cheetah, whose patterned coat contrasts with its monochromatic hunting grounds. Allen said this might be explained by the cheetah’s hunting strategy, which relies not on camouflage, but on speed. Low genetic diversity might also be a cause.
“It may be that there isn’t variety in the population to become anything other than spotted,” says Allen. For other cats, however, camouflage evolves in response to environment over short periods of time, suggesting a leopard can actually change its spots.
Allen drew inspiration for the title of his study from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. “Rudyard Kipling was wrong by suggesting how leopards got their spots as the fingerprints of a man,” Allen told the Telegraph. “But he was right about the reason because they provide the perfect camouflage in a forest habitat with dappled light.”