It seems obvious: Stripes conceal a tiger in the tall grass, whereas spots help a jaguar remain hidden in its shadowy rainforest home. But is this true? Using Internet image searches and wildlife photo archives, researchers classified 35 species of cats according to their markings, including the size, shape, and direction of the pattern. Then the researchers compared those characteristics with factors such as habitat, prey size, and hunting time. As the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in virtually every case, the cat's markings provided camouflage specific to its habitat, suggesting that it quickly evolved those markings to fill an ecological niche. Though the researchers found a few exceptions, spotted cats frequent forests, while unmarked lions range out in the open, and the most irregularly marked species, such as the clouded leopard, tend to live in trees and hunt at night. And the tiger? Those magnificent stripes do conceal the great cat in its jungle habitat, but the pattern is so unique that its origins remain a mystery.
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*This article has been corrected. It originally connected a tiger's stripes with its habitat, but the researchers did not make that conclusion.