|1 Fur and Markings|
The fur of the cat serves two distinct purposes - firstly it protects the animal against the extremes of its environment and secondly serves as camouflage to make the cat less easy to spot against the background of its habitat.
Melanistic Geoffrey's Cat
Photo : Wildlife on Easy Street
The length and relative thickness of a cats fur, or pelage, is determined to a degree, by the environment in which it is found. The Snow Leopard who lives in generally mountainous habitats, has a long, woolly fur which serves to insulate it against the extreme cold - it is also markedly longer on the animals belly, thus providing extra protection to the part of the body closest to the snow covered ground. The Lynx, another wild cat who inhabits the cold northern lands, also displays a longer coat as well as distinctive hairy 'breeches' (see insert picture) which cover its legs and paws, giving the cat extra protection as it moves through soft snow.
Interestingly, long fur does not always protect against the cold - the Black-footed Cat and Sand Cat both have longer fur covering their feet and pads - this is said to give them insulation against the heat of the ground in their desert habitats. As a general rule though, cats who inhabit colder climates have soft, long fur and those in warmer climates have bristly, short fur.
Of prime importance to wild cat is the need to remain unseen by its intended prey. Although speed and agile movement is required in the final chase, many of the species of wild cat rely on concealment as a prime weapon in their arsenal - here the underlying colour and surface markings of the coat aid them. In general, the base colour of the fur is similar to that of the habitat in which it is found - the yellow/brown of the Lion matches the colouring of the savanna grasslands and the sandy coloured coat of the Sand Cat, that of its desert surrounding. In habitats that are less uniform in colour, such as scrubland, woodland and dense forest, the coat markings of species found in such locations tend to become more pronounced - striped markings make the shape of a cat less easy to define in grasslands, while spots and rosette markings act in a similar fashion in varying light and shade of woodland and forest. Due possibly to the extent of some species ranges, regional differences in markings can be observed within a single species - the Serval, found in much of central and southern Africa, tends to have larger spots which coalesce into stripes along its back in the open savanna and grasslands, whilst those found in less open surroundings, such as woodland and forest, have smaller spots more densely grouped. Such variation is common in cats that have large geographical ranges - the Leopard, Lynx and various Wildcat species all exhibit varying intensities of coat coloration and marking depending on location.
A wild cat is at its most vulnerable when young and is at risk itself from other predators, which may even included other species of larger cat. Here again, the coat as camouflage come into play - many species of wild cat, even those who have uniform coloration in adulthood, display darker spotted markings as cubs or kittens, as can be seen with the Lion, which does not fully loose its spots until young adulthood.
Deviation form normal coat coloration can also occur - melanism can be observed in many of the wild cat species. A melanistic cat is one that appears black or almost black - in fact in most cases the normal markings can usually be made out faintly within the black fur and it is common for melanistic and normally marked cats to be born in the same litter. In certain species, notably the Lion and Tiger it is possible to have 'white' coated cats - however this mutation is not so marked and other markings, as in the white Bengal Tiger, are often more evident than the 'masked' coat patterns in melanism.