How Big Cats Have Earned Their Stripes, Spots, and Everything in Between
- Author: Hannah Mittermeier
- Publication Date: January 29, 2024
Big cats are often revered as rulers of the jungle. This is perhaps, in part, due to their beautiful coats. Of the forty species of wild cats, there are plenty that just might have come to mind. Tigers don their stripes; leopards and cheetahs, sporting their spots. These go far beyond just beauty marks, however, as they’ve served an important evolutionary purpose. Let’s take a closer look at their unique patterns to better understand the role they play in the survival of these species.
Markings help camouflage these creatures, and they use stealth to their advantage. The distinct designs on their coats help big cats blend in with their respective environments, keeping them hidden from both predators and prey. One such example is the Siberian tiger, AKA the largest cat in the world. Coming in at a hefty six hundred and sixty pounds, it mustn’t be easy to ignore this great cat..! Yet, the tiger’s stripes offer “disruptive coloration” – this means that their large size is broken up and segmented, so that they can seemingly disappear within trees and tall grasses.
Fun fact: just like a human’s fingerprints, each tigers’ set of stripes is uniquely their own. This is a useful trait to help zoologists identify individuals in the wild! Algorithms now have the capability of distinguishing patterns pulled from photographs and video recordings, which is a wonderful contribution toward wildlife research and conservation efforts.
Spotted creatures, such as leopards and cheetahs, rely on their markings for similar reasons. Rosettes (a flower-like cluster of spots or blotches) are a common pattern found on leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and ocelots. These markings help simulate specks of shadows, giving cover to the cats as they stalk their prey. A physical characteristic that is classically cheetah is the unique black marking that begins at the inner corner of their eyes, extending down to their mouths. It is believed that these “teardrops” reduce glare from the sun, not unlike athletes applying black, greasy warpaint below their eyes. This minimizes the amount of strong sunlight that may obscure a cheetah’s vision – they have highly sensitive eyes with a greater concentration of cells attached to their optic nerve, allowing them to hone in on swift prey.
It is also thought that the cheetah’s distinct appearance helps them more easily identify other cheetahs and better differentiate them from similar cats, such as leopards, who may pose a threat. At first glance, one may be mistaken for the other – leopards are generally more yellow, however, whereas a cheetah’s fur is tan – and despite the traits they do have in common, they are certainly not the same species. These two cats don’t necessarily get along, and they actually tend to avoid each other out in the wild.
Some big cats – particularly, the mighty lion – have plain coats (although they do not appear any less magnificent, of course.) While some lions tend to have rosette patterns as cubs, these markings typically fade as they mature, given the muted colors and lack of dense vegetation in their respective kingdom.
On the other hand, black leopards (or panthers, which is actually a fun umbrella term referring to any black-coated cat) are shrouded in the darkness of thick rainforests. Here, they have many places to hide, whereas they would stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of a barren desert or savanna.
Moving a bit closer to home, a mountain lion’s coat operates in a similar fashion. When they are born, spots help conceal them within the terrain of the Americas, as they are especially vulnerable when they are kittens. After only a few months, however, these markings begin to fade and in adulthood, their coat is a solid tawny sort of color. Their ears, snout, and tail are accentuated with a bit of black (perhaps helping a hiker recognize them more quickly..!)
While the intention of these markings is to offer protection, big cats are often tragic targets of another major predator – humans – who may feel entitled to their fur and associate it with elevated status. There are just over five thousand and five hundred tigers left in the wild, according to the WWF, and many other species have often hovered near the brink of endangerment and extinction as they are poached – hunted illegally – for their fur. With cheetahs, it is unfortunately a similar situation.
Although this illegal wildlife trade is a billion-dollar business, there is no price that should be put on the life of an animal. These creatures face a man-made threat that we can all work toward combating; wild animals deserve peace, as well as the right to be left alone. If we are to intervene in any way, it should simply be to protect (and admire, but perhaps from afar..!) This is our responsibility: to respect wildlife, allowing these beautiful big cats to not only survive, but thrive and keep their magnificent coats, too.
World Wildlife Fund. 2023. Tiger. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
Roy, S. 2023. Stripes, Spots And Rosettes: Understanding Feline Fur Patterns. https://wildlifesos.org/chronological-news/stripes-spots-and-rosettes-understanding-feline-fur-patterns/
Wildlife Act. 2019. Why Do Cheetah Have Tear Marks? https://www.wildlifeact.com/blog/why-do-cheetah-have-tear-marks/