Tabby or not tabby, that’s the question.
As any cat owner can tell you, cats don’t give up their secrets easily. But a new study published Tuesday in the science journal Nature Communications delves into a long-held kitty mystery: How does a tabby cat’s body create those striking stripe patterns in its fur?
“Tabby” is not a breed; This is a distinct fur pattern that is common in cats. Tabby cats often have what looks like the letter “M” on their foreheads, with bold stripes of varying design throughout their fur. Tabby cats have also made their mark on pop culture. Morris the 9Lives cat food mascot is an orange tabby, as are the cartoon cats Garfield and Heathcliff.
The study, conducted by scientists from Alabama’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Stanford University School of Medicine, examined 200 litters of non-viable embryos, uncovering the mystery of how patterns emerge in a developing cat.
One of the authors of the report, Dr. Gregory S. “We think this is really the first glimpse of what the molecules[involved in pattern development]might be,” Bursch told The New York Times.
The study found that differences in fetal gene expression determined the colors that would later be produced when hair follicles grew. The seemingly identical cat-skin cells can acquire different genetic signatures that subsequently result in the cat’s complex fur patterns. The same can be true for big wild cats like leopards and tigers.
New research determined that a gene known as Dickkopf 4 (DKK4) is critical to the process. Some cats, such as the elegant Abyssinian, carry what is called a tick pattern, where instead of stripes, the cat may appear similar to a tabby in some areas, yet have small, flake-like markings. Studies show that this occurs when the DKK4 gene is mutated in those cats.
It may sound like all you want to know about your favorite cat, but the study says that “understanding the basis of the animal’s color patterns is a question of long-standing interest to developmental and evolutionary biology.”