The Secret Behind the Spots

The big cats are some of the most popular animals, with almost everyone recognizing and respecting the lions, the leopards, and of course the tigers. When it comes to these giant felines, though, a lot of people find it difficult to tell some of them apart. The lions and tigers are easy and fairly distinct, but some big cats have similar camouflage patterns that can make it hard to differentiate them.

Quick, question time: What kind of big cat is this?

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If you answered leopard then congratulations, you’re right! If you didn’t then don’t worry, telling the differences between cheetahs, leopards and jaguars is what this post is all about. The secret lies in the spots, you see. Even though spots occur on many, many different species of big cats, they aren’t identical. In fact, like our own human fingerprints, these spotted patterns are unique to their individual owners and very distinct between the different species.

Spots are one of the most common coat patterns on cats of all shapes and sizes. They can exist on the smallest house cats to the biggest leopards and every size in between. Because of this universal and extremely successful form of camouflage it can be difficult to tell the difference between the different species, especially some of the larger cats who appear nearly identical because of their golden color and black spots, such as the cheetah, the leopard, and jaguar. To the unpracticed eye they can look fairly similar, and since the cheetah and leopard share the same environment they’re easily mistaken for one another.

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When the three coat patterns are placed side by side it’s clear that they have their differences.

On the left we have the cheetah’s spots, which are the most obvious of the three due to their solid appearance.  In the middle are the leopard’s spots, which tend to have a slightly different color interior than the outer fur. Lastly is the jaguar, made distinct from the others because of the rosette pattern of the spots themselves, meaning that there are smaller spots within the bigger spots.

Each are unique and, with a close enough examination, easily identifiable as being different from one another. Pretty cool, huh? Now whenever you see one of those videos or pictures online and everyone is calling it a leopard you can inform them that it’s actually a jaguar! Or, if you’re anything like me, you’ll writhe in anger as everyone misidentifies a cheetah as a leopard. They’re so different! Note that the leopard spots here are for the african leopard, not the snow leopard or clouded leopard. Those are completely different, but no less cool!

Let’s play another quick game: can you spot the leopard?

leopard

If you’re wondering why these cats have different spot styles compared to one another then the answer is that each cat is adapted to different environments, and their spots reflect where they would hide.

The cheetah hides in tall grasses on the savannah, so their small, solid spots give the illusion of moving grass. The leopard, on the other hand, likes to hide in trees while they wait for their prey. Their darker, more mottled spots can give the illusion of bark on trees, while their golden coloration also allows them to hide within the savannah’s grass if need be, seen above. The jaguar, lastly, is the only cat of the three that comes from South America, and therefore their coloration helps them to blend with the undergrowth of thick forests. Their darker pelt color and the darker spots help them to blend into the shadows of trees. All are specifically adapted to be master hunters of their own domains.

The real question comes to why do so many different cat species have spots? Well, it comes down to hiding and stalking. Spots and stripes both help break up the outline of the cat in question so that they can better hide and either wait for their prey or avoid predators. Even big cats such as the lion, which have a solid coloration in their adulthood, have faint spots as cubs. These fade as the lion cub grows, usually disappearing at around three to four months old.

When it comes down to it spots are simply one of the most successful types of camouflage, and therefore it makes sense for it to be seen across a wide variety of species. And why do domesticated cats have spots? That’s just because they’re cute!

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