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How the leopard got its spots

world Updated: Oct 20, 2010 23:53 IST

More than a century after Rudyard Kipling offered his own explanation in the Just So Stories, scientists have revealed how the leopard got his spots.

The animals' dark, rosette-like markings, and those of other wild cats, are evolution's response to the creatures' surroundings and to whether they hunt by day or night, say researchers at Bristol University.

Cats that hunt on open, rocky ground by daylight tend to have evolved plain-coloured coats, while those that pounce from rainforest tree branches typically sport dappled fur. In each habitat, the cat's markings improve its camouflage and make it a more effective predator.

For smaller cats, fur colour can help them hide from larger carnivores.

Will Allen, a behavioural ecologist, studied the coat patterns of 35 wild cat species and compiled details of their habitats, hunting styles and when they went on the prowl..

Cats with complex and irregular markings, such as the familiar spotted leopard, were commonly found in dense, dark forests and hunted at night.

In Kipling's 1902 tale, an Ethiopian hunter paints spots on a leopard to help it blend into the “speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows” of the forest.