Many have asked, “How did a tiger get his stripes?” People also ask that of a tiger’s relative, the domesticated cat. It’s a secret the cat was unwilling to share, so legends and lore were written to tell the tale. Researchers were not satisfied with those answers, and sought out scientific answers to the question.
The mapping of the cat genome, completed in 2007, allowed their study to begin. Although the genome has less fur than a cat, it was still a hairy prospect to comb through. The researchers began looking through the data of many cat pedigrees, which have wide variety of stripe patterns. These patterns are categorized and labeled, and the general term for them is “tabby.”
Tabby cats generally have some sort of recurring alternating stripe pattern on their torso. The pattern also includes a mark on their foreheads, defined by an ‘M’ pattern. Some of the more common variations of tabbies are mackerel, classic (or blotchy, or marbled), ticked, and spotted.
Research from one group of mackerel pattern cats and another group of classic pattern cats were compared. The scientists finally isolated one gene that controls this pattern: the Taqpep gene. When this gene is active, a cat has the more common mackerel pattern. If a mutation occurs, the classic (or blotched) pattern becomes the cat’s markings. This is the same gene that works in other feline species. Cheetahs’ spots are controlled by this gene, but if it mutates, their spots are blotched, and they are called King Cheetahs!
Further study of gene patterns are needed. Scientists have unlocked the mystery of stripes, but explanations for what causes a tabby to be spotted still belongs to legend and lore. As Leslie Lyons, a cat geneticist states, “The cat has not revealed all its mysteries yet.”