A cheetah stalks through the tall grass of the savanna

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Seeing Spots

Nature's Camouflage

Spots are just dots, right? Not so fast! Markings and patterns in the animal kingdom are as varied and diverse as animals themselves. And for many big cats, their markings are iconic—leopard print and tiger stripes are probably familiar to you, even if you've never seen one of these animals in person. 

These natural designs are nature's camouflage, helping cats blend into their native habitats to hunt, stalk, and hide. They're also intriguingly unique. Not only do markings vary between species, but each cat’s pattern is as individual as your fingerprints! These one-of-a-kind coats allow conservationists to identify individual animals on trail cameras, which increases understanding about how they use their habitats and helps improve conservation plans. Friends like you support our efforts to save leopards, jaguars, tigers, and cats of all stripes from the brink of extinction. 

So when are spots just dots? And how can you tell a leopard from a jaguar? It's easier than you think. 

A jaguar reaches a paw out, making its way from the grassy bank into the river below

Some cats do like to swim! Jaguars live near rivers and bodies of water and enjoy a swim as well as fishing for aquatic prey. Their unique patterns help them blend into their rain forest habitat.

More Than Meets the Eye

Cheetahs are known for being the fastest land animals, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph. But these sprinters have a less famous and equally as important tool: their polka-dotted coats. The deceptively simple dots vary in size. At a distance, this pattern breaks up the outline of the cat's body, allowing it to hide in plain sight in the grassy savannas. Cheetahs might be fast, but aren't particularly powerful otherwise—for instance, they're no match for a pride of lions. They use their speed and their spotted coats alike to help them hide while they hunt for a meal, and to keep them from being one!

A cheetah in the grass on the savanna blends into its habitat

Cheetahs blend into their habitats with a surprisingly simple polka dot pattern. The further away you get from them, the harder they are to see!

A Rose By Any Other Name

The spots on a leopard's coat are known as rosettes.These two-toned spots have a lighter center that's usually surrounded by a darker border, and they do indeed look like roses! Their naturally dappled look helps leopards blend into their surroundings, whether in a lush rain forest in Asia, the grass of the savanna, or snow of the Himalayas. This natural camouflage helps hide leopards from predators and lets them sneak up on prey. 

An African leopard lies draped across a high tree branch

Sitting pretty: a leopard's coat pattern helps it blend into the dappled branches of a tree, keeping it hidden from both predator and prey.

Hard to Spot

Snow leopards and African leopards tend to have lighter coats than leopards that live in darker rain forests in Asia. Snow leopards do indeed live in the snow! High in the mountains of Central Asia, their gray and white coats make a perfect camouflage for the remote rocky, snowy, mountain terrain.

a snow leopard looks at the camera, difficult to spot against its mountainous rocky habitat

Snow leopards blend into their remote mountain habitats so well that they're hard to study, because researchers can't find them.

Spot the Dot

Jaguars have rosettes, too. The quickest way to spot one at a glance? Look for the dark dots in the middle of their rosettes. Leopards don't have them! Jaguar rosettes are typically tighter and closer together, too, whereas leopard rosettes are less complex and can look a little blurrier.  

A close shot of leopard rosettes on the left and jaguar rosettes on the right

A leopard rosette on the left; a jaguar rosette—with dots in the middle—on the right.

Double Camouflage?

Black leopards might look all black, but they do have rosettes! They're just harder to see, and usually only show up in the right lighting. Motion-activated trail cameras in Kenya provided by donors like you took these photos, which show the coat pattern. Black leopards are incredibly rare, and these photos are the first images of them recorded for science. Individual coat patterns help conservationists track individual animals in an area, giving them a better understanding of how they use their habitat. This knowledge helps conservationists devise plans to protect habitat, reduce threats, and ensure that these iconic big cats thrive. 

a black leopard appears on a San Diego Zoo Global trail camera in northern Kenya

Black leopards have long been reported to roam areas of northern Kenya. In 2019, San Diego Zoo Global's motion-activated trail cameras were the first to get images of them—an important scientific milestone.

Friends like you make these incredible conservation efforts possible. On behalf of tigers, jaguars, lions, and countless other cats around the world, thank you. 

Photo credits: cheetah in grass: wilpunt/E+/Getty Images  |  jaguar: shutterstock 510450136  |  cheetah on savanna: mlharing/iStock/Getty Images  |  snow leopard: mikelane45/iStock/Getty Images  |  leopard fur: art-y/iStock/Getty Images

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