ABOVE: Photos of melanistic Southern tigrina (left) and non-melanistic tigrina (right) from camera traps

Some cats have very dark fur due to an increased amount of melanin, a trait called melanism. Wild cats with melanism may have advantages, such as better camouflage while hunting at night, warmth in cold climates, and protection from viral infections, but they miss out on being able to communicate important visual signals to other cats, according to a study published in PLOS ONE yesterday (December 18). 

What has driven the evolution of melanism is not fully understood. To look into it, researchers led by Maurício Eduardo Graipel, an ecologist at the Federal University of Santa Catalina in Brazil, examined a dataset of the appearance and behavior traits of all 40 Felidae species and combined it with a molecular phylogeny analysis.

The team found that although all cats are nocturnal...

Southern tigrina (Leopardus guttulus) alert display showing white marks on ears

M.E. Graipel et al., “Melanism evolution in the cat family is influenced by intraspecific communication under low visibility,” PLOS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0226136, 2019.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.

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