Reason why the clouded leopard has a cloud-like spotted coat

Image: MikeB using Canva.
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To its great cost, the clouded leopard has a very distinctive and attractive coat pattern resulting in human persecution. The coat is brown and therefore not like the forest canopy in which it lives but the patterning is good camouflage when looking up from the ground at the branches and jungle foliage. And behind the foliage is the sky if visible. Fancifully, I wondered if the coat had evolved to match the clouds of the sky. After all the cat is named after that possibility.

But being realistic the cloud-like coat pattern evolved because this interesting large/small cat species is arboreal and likes to be high up in the branches of trees. The coat evolved to provide camouflage under that particular environment for millions of years starting around 5 million years ago. The picture I have created hints at this evolution.

My AI assistant, Poe, says this:

Clouded leopards are highly adept climbers and spend a significant amount of time in trees. The cloud-like spots on their coat resemble the dappled sunlight that filters through the forest canopy. This helps them blend in with the light and shadows of their arboreal habitat, providing effective camouflage against potential predators or prey.

Poe

That sums it up nicely. The cloud-like coat is an adaptation to the specialized environment in which it lives. The coat of the domestic cat ancestor, the Near Eastern wildcat, is a faint spotted/mackerel tabby which serves it well as it lives mainly on the ground (is terrestrial). The ground is stony, sandy and mottled by vegetation.

Why didn’t clouded leopard evolve a green, leaf-patterned coat? That’s an evolution too far as the clouded leopard does spend a lot of time on the ground as well. Also, melanin, the pigment that creates coat pattens and colour in cats, is a dark brown and it cannot be green!

It is estimated that they [the clouded leopard] spend around 50-60% of their time in trees, utilizing their strong limbs, flexible body, and long tail to navigate tree branches with agility and grace. 

AI Poe

There is an added point to make. Predators of the clouded leopard and prey animals that the clouded leopard hunts probably have eyesight that does not pick out the brown from the green background very cleanly. Prey animals may be colour blind to a certain extent which allows the brown coat to blend nicely with the green foliage and dappled light from the sky behind when looking up.

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