Why the leopard got its spots: relating pattern development to ecology in felids

William L. Allen, Innes C. Cuthill, Nicholas E. Scott-Samuel, Roland Baddeley

Abstract

A complete explanation of the diversity of animal colour patterns requires an understanding of both the developmental mechanisms generating them and their adaptive value. However, only two previous studies, which involved computer-generated evolving prey, have attempted to make this link. This study examines variation in the camouflage patterns displayed on the flanks of many felids. After controlling for the effects of shared ancestry using a fully resolved molecular phylogeny, this study shows how phenotypes from plausible felid coat pattern generation mechanisms relate to ecology. We found that likelihood of patterning and pattern attributes, such as complexity and irregularity, were related to felids' habitats, arboreality and nocturnality. Our analysis also indicates that disruptive selection is a likely explanation for the prevalence of melanistic forms in Felidae. Furthermore, we show that there is little phylogenetic signal in the visual appearance of felid patterning, indicating that camouflage adapts to ecology over relatively short time scales. Our method could be applied to any taxon with colour patterns that can reasonably be matched to reaction–diffusion and similar models, where the kinetics of the reaction between two or more initially randomly dispersed morphogens determines the outcome of pattern development.

  • Received August 12, 2010.
  • Accepted September 20, 2010.
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