Spots, stripes, tail tips and dark eyes: Predicting the function of carnivore colour patterns using the comparative method

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Abstract

Animal colour patterns are adaptive for three reasons: camouflage, communication and physico-physiological functions. This study proposes a conceptual framework for predicting the main adaptive function of carnivore colour patterns based on three factors: visibility, shape and location on the body, as well as, their behavioural ecological correlates. Using a comparative phylogenetic approach, the colour patterns present on the body, the tail and the eyes of 200 species of mammalian carnivores were analysed. Their evolutionary history was reconstructed using MacClade and Maddison's concentrated-changes test was used to test the association between species' colour patterns and their behavioural ecology on a composite phylogeny for all the Carnivora. The results for dark spots, vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, ringed tails, black tail tips, white tail tips, dark eye contour and dark eye patches, are presented. The comparative analyses indicate that spotted, vertically striped and horizontally striped coats evolved for camouflage. Tail markings seem to have evolved for intra- and/or inter-specific communication, while dark markings near and around the eyes are associated with variables consistent with a physico-physiological function. These findings suggest that both the physical environment and animal behaviour are important selective factors driving the evolution of animal colour patterns and that both need to be taken into consideration in future studies of animal coloration.

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