How do leopards really get their spots?


Adult leopard with rosette spots

Leopard picture courtesy www.wildlife-pictures-online.com

From Biology News Net:

Model of Changing Leopard Spots

R. T. Liu, S. S. Liaw, and P. K. Maini

Physical Review E

Leopard’s spots and Zebra’s stripes inspired the ancient myths famously retold in Kipling’s “Just So Stories.”

They also led legendary mathematician Alan Turing to suggest that some patterns in nature are due to various chemicals, or morphogens, diffusing across surfaces and forming shapes where they interact.

Few Turing-type models, however, addressed the fact that such patterns may evolve over time.

A two-stage variation of Turing’s model, recently developed by physicists at Taiwan’s National Chung-Hsing University and Oxford’s Mathematical Institute, duplicates the changes in the patterns on leopards and jaguars as the animals age.
Leopard kitten with simple spots

Both felines sport simple spots when they are kittens.

By the time they’re adults, Jaguar’s spots have turned to polygons, while Leopard wears rosettes.
Jaguar adult spots
The researchers’ model replicates the changes each of the species experiences, provided that the model parameters are tuned in different ways after the initial spots have formed.

No one has ever found the morphogens that might be responsible for decorative animal pelts, which potentially makes Turing pattern morphogens the “Just So Story” of modern biology.

Still, the researchers are encouraged by the fact that their model easily accounts for the big cats’ complex and changing patterns, and are hopeful that experimentalists will soon track morphogen chemicals down.

Adult cheetahs have simple spots, somewhat like leopard kittens.

Cheetah spots

Cheetah kittens are spotlessly grayish.

Cheetahs of Iran: here.

Leopard, spotted hyena (see also here), lion video: here.

Leopard and cheetah video: here.

The leopard cannot change its spots, nor can the tiger change its stripes, but a new research report reported in the January 2009 issue of the journal GENETICS tells us something about how cats end up with their spots and stripes: here.

Far eastern leopard: here.

Malaysian leopards mostly black: here.

Amur leopards: here; and here.

On how the leopard got its spots. By Katia Moskvitch Science reporter, BBC News: here.

From the plain-pelted lion to the speckled cheetah, cats boast a wide range of coat patterns. The variety of patterns may seem at first too vast to explain. But armed with a few simple rules, we can better understand the many coat patterns as variations on a theme: here.

Leopards can’t change their spots? Cheetahs can: here.

Amur tigers and leopards: here.

Amur tiger numbers on the increase: here.

WWF: China, Russia agree to first transboundary protected area to conserve Amur tigers: here.

Amur leopard conservation: interview with Sarah Christie: here.

Big cats in medieval Tower of London: here.

Privately owned big cats in Britain today: here.

Poaching of lions in India: here.

Spotted hyenas: here.

Spotted hyenas can increase survival rates by hunting alone: here.

24 thoughts on “How do leopards really get their spots?

  1. Kenya: Man Cannot Be a Leopard No Matter How He Tries

    The East African Standard

    The East African Standard (Nairobi)

    COLUMN
    January 31, 2007
    Posted to the web February 1, 2007

    Okech Kendo
    Nairobi

    Desperate people sometimes do desperate things. And when they do, they become subjects of folklore.

    Those who know something about this genre understand that not all such narratives are of a make-believe kind. Sometimes, unusual actions are expressions for raw greed that does not consider the risks or means to the end. It is eye on the prize, forget the risks.
    Western Union

    Take the case of an otherwise modest employee of a local authority who spent more than 24 hours in a cage laid out for a leopard on a chilly night. So how did the man, who has never been a leopard, got trapped in a cage laid out for the wild cat?

    For months, a leopard that came from no one knew where had caused havoc in a village in Rachuonyo District. The cat struck almost every night, leaving in its wake a goat mauled, bowels gouged out, a sheep killed and part of its carcass dismembered. Or a calf wounded, intestines gone, and the animal dead or dying.

    Sometimes the leopard would scare children on their way from collecting firewood or returning home late from the village market. Sometimes the cat would scare men and women arriving late from some trip, with sharp-torch like eyes, prying in the dark for a prey. When the threat and loss to this animal became unbearable, the villagers approached the nearest Kenya Wildlife Service office to help the community get rid of the dangerous intruder.

    KWS laid a trap – a cage, with dry tilapia as the bait. KWS might have trapped leopards this way and were sure they had laid the bait where the animal was certain to be caught. The first tilapia disappeared from the cage, but no cat was trapped. There was no sign the leopard had been about the previous night. The second and third tilapias also disappeared without trace or tail of the target prey.

    The bait was gone, but the monster was elsewhere, yanking another goat dead. The fourth tilapia turned a different, surprise catch, totally unexpected in the history of trapping dangerous beasts. When game wardens turned up more than 24 hours after laying the trap, they found a man, scared to death, shrivelled and lonely, lying forlornly in the cage, dreading the moment of truth.

    Yet it was also the man’s chance of release from the cage. Perhaps the man was lucky that wardens, rather than the leopard, found him. The man was helpless. The wardens did not know whether to laugh or cry or be angry at the sight of the wrong prisoner, trapped in the wrong cage at the wrong time. But they knew how greed and desperation sometimes drive people to extremes of shame.

    The wardens did not know what to do with the man. A leopard could be relocated, but a man? They took him to the nearest police station where he was locked up for three days. He was probably locked up for impersonating a leopard, or being a public nuisance, or trying to commit suicide or abetting insecurity.

    What we will never know is whether the man’s family ever believed their breadwinner bought the fish on the three days he stole the leopard’s bait. Perhaps he had an alibi for being in the wrong place. A man can never be a leopard, no matter how hard he tries.

  2. dear dearkitty,
    searching for leopards (for the children) brought us to your wonderful site. We are animal lovers here and the kids love pretending to be lions and tigers and leopards. i just found the video of the borneo clouded leopard and the kids will love it when they wake up.

    We are seriously into animals in another way: from the perspective of non-violence, vegetarianism etc. At first glance you appear to be a scientist/biologist.

    love and regards,
    ananda

  3. Hi ananda, thank you for your reaction to this blog; and all the best for you and your family!

    You can find more on big cats on this blog eg by clicking on Categories: mammals, and/or with search terms like “leopard”, “lion”, “cats” etc.

    I never studied biology at university not being good enough at biochemistry, an important part of that study. However, I have always been very interested in it.

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