Why Do Leopards Have Spots?

leopards-spots Credit: markbirchall/CC-BY-2.0

The alternating dark and light patches on the coat of a leopard help to break up the outline of its body, allowing it to camouflage itself better in the grasslands or forest and hunt more effectively. It works on the principle of disruptive coloration, also exhibited by tigers and zebras. UCSB theorizes that the original gene that caused the spots on a leopard's coat may have been a mutation.

While the evolutionary advantage of a leopard's unusual coloration is well understood today, in the past the leopard's coat has found itself the subject of African mythology. One folk tale attributes the spots to an accident with Leopard's friend Fire, but another claims that Tortoise is responsible for painting both Zebra and Leopard; these stories vary by region. Rudyard Kipling tackled the question of the leopard's spots in a "Just So" story, stumbling upon the truth that the irregular patterns provide an enormous advantage when hunting. The long-term benefit of spots has been observed by comparing numbers of the spotted leopard with its cousin, the black leopard, which cannot disguise itself outside dense rain forests and darkness. The rosettes of the leopard's coat are designed to be effective camouflage even when the animal is moving.