Lion cubs in Tulsa zoo

We have some Tuesday felids because this video, taken at the Tulsa zoo, demonstrates an evolutionary lesson.  Look closely at the cubs’ coats, and you’ll see leopard-like rosettes.  Many species of cats show this pattern in the cubs, even if the pattern disappears with growth.  It almost certainly reflects (as discussed in WEIT), an atavistic trait: the persistence in a descendant of traits that were adaptive only in an ancestor.  I suspect that the ancestor of lions had spots as adults, and that’s why they show up, briefly, in lion cubs.


  1. Onkel Bob
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    missing *embed* command? Should be after *object*.

  2. Posted June 24, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Hugh Cott, in his classic “Adaptive Coloration in Animals” (Methuen, 1940) agreed with Jerry on this: “Among mammals and birds, first liveries acquired by the young– whether this happens before or after birth– often differ widely from the full dress of their parents. But it must not be assumed that such differences are necessarily adaptive. Lion cubs have spotted coats, and their tails are ringed…[Cott gives some more cat examples]… Since the kittens of all these animals…are born in sheltered dens or holes, carefully hidden or guarded by the mother, the spotted pattern can hardly be explained as protective.”(p. 21). I’m not so sure, though. Lions are not sheltered in dens or burrows, but rather are kept in thickets and kopjes, and may be on their own for a day at a time (George Schaller, “The Serengeti Lion” [Chicago, 1972], so the spots might be protective coloration for keeping the young hidden before they become formidable individually. (Protective coloration in the young is well known in mammals– whitetailed and mule deer, and tapirs, being good examples: their young bear dots and vermiculations that blend with sun- or moon-dappled forest floors.)

    Rarely, spots are retained by adult lions (I’ve seen a photo of a skin now, I believe, at the British Museum), and some have even thought these spotted adults are a distinct species of lion.

    • Posted June 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      “It almost certainly reflects (as discussed in WEIT), an atavistic trait: the persistence in a descendant of traits that were adaptive only in an ancestor.” I might be missing something here, but why aren’t spots adaptive in modern young lions?

      • Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        (My bad – this was a comment, not a reply to a comment.)

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] while back Jerry posted a video of lion cubs at the Tulsa Zoo, and noted that they have spots, remarking Many species of […]

  2. […] you may recall from Jerry’s earlier posting of a video of lion cubs, lions are born with spots, which disappear as they mature. Jerry and I disputed whether such […]

  3. […] as well– Jerry, agreeing with the foremost student of animal coloration, Hugh B. Cott, thinks the spots are atavistic, while I think they are likely adaptively […]

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