Watching your cat chase a laser pointer probably doesn't make you think of the majestic cheetah. But your cat might actually have a lot in common with those speedy critters. A recent study in Science took a look at the genes behind a cheetah's spots, and compared them to those of a tabby cat. Science Now explains:
To pinpoint the gene responsible for the difference, an international team of researchers scanned the genomes of feral cats that had either stripes or blotches. Their search led to an unnamed gene about which little is known except that it produces an enzyme that cuts up nearby proteins. The researchers found that every blotched tabby had mutations in both copies of this gene, whereas every striped cat had at least one copy without the mutation. They then found the distinctive mutations in the same gene among DNA samples from a pedigreed family of king cheetahs, confirming their suspicions that mutations in the gene, which they dubbed Taqpep,turned ordinary stripes into the more regal blotches.
This was quite surprising to them. No one thought that Taqpep would be involved in pigmentation at all. Now, scientists have a whole new gene to study. This doesn't exactly explain the age old question of why the cheetah has spots, but it comes close.
Why do big cats have spots anyway? No one is totally sure, actually. But the theory goes that the spots might help with camouflage. Another recent study looked at the markings of 35 wild cat species, and compared their habitats. Newsday explains their findings:
Cats living in dense, wooded areas who hunt mainly in dim or dappled light are mostly likely to have elaborate markings. Cats who live in the open tended to have plain coats. How come? Large, patterned cats have an advantage in a sun-dappled forest, since designs provide camouflage for stalking prey. Smaller cats with patterns would also be better hidden from predators.
Whatever the reason for the spots, we now have a gene that might explain how they form.
Image: Ullisan / Flickr