Why do tigers have spots on their ears?

The question is a reference to the white blob of fur surrounded by black on the back of the ear flaps of tigers. It is so distinct that people think there has to be a reason for it. Nature through evolution has a reason for everything that it creates. So, what is the reason for these white blobs of fur?

Some people call them “ocelli”. Others simply refer to them as “eyespots” or “predator spots”. My reference book does not tell me why they exist which surprises me to be honest. It appears that the general consensus is that their purpose is to deter predators of young tigers and cubs from being attacked from the rear as the eyespots give the impression that they are facing the predator.

Tiger ocelli
Tiger ocelli. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.
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That appears to be a common-sense appraisal and rather interestingly it actually squares up to what people do to avoid being attacked by tigers. In India it has been found that if labourers in areas where there are tigers wear a facemask on the back of their heads it helps to stop tigers attacking them from behind. As I said it’s the same principle so people are thinking the same way as nature which is an interesting thought.

Perhaps an alternative theory is based on the fact that the tiger’s coat is designed to be good camouflage. Everything about the tiger’s coat is to do with camouflage. Camouflaging is designed to protect the animal from attack because it means they are harder to spot by predators.

Of course, the adult tiger is the top predator anywhere they go and therefore on the face of it there is no need for them to wear camouflage and to be hidden. There is one predator who alone can quite definitely kill the tiger and that is the human. So camouflage helps to protect tigers from being hunted by people. I wonder whether nature designed and built the tiger’s coat to avoid being hunted by the ancestors of modern humans? A bizzare thought perhaps.

Aasha falling in love with big Smuggler and vice versa. Photo: In-Sync Exotics
Aasha falling in love with big Smuggler and vice versa. Notice the eye spots on the ears. Photo: In-Sync Exotics

Also wild dogs in large packs can kill a tiger (at great cost to the dogs). And water buffalos can but the buffalos only do this in defense while the dogs attack as predators and aggressors.

But if the coat is designed for camouflage, I wonder if these white spots are simply designed to confuse predators. If an animal has eyes at the front and apparently eyes at the back of their heads it creates confusion to any animal who wants to attack a tiger. It creates uncertainty and in that moment of uncertainty a tiger has time to escape. This is probably another reasonable suggestion as to why they are present.

A third possibility, which I may have read somewhere, is that the white spots help cubs to follow their mother as they travel through dense undergrowth. If this is true, the reason why they exist it is to assist in the survival of cubs by helping the mother to manage her offspring more efficiently.

The bottom line is that they are there to aid in the survival of this wonderful animal. That must be certain. It’s just a question of how it is achieved.

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