When Cheetahs are like Badgers

2 01 2007

A adult Cheetah posing for the Camera at the Philadelphia Zoo

I’ve really been loving my copy of Estes’ The Behavior Guide to African Mammals, and one of the allusions the author made struck me in particular. For some reason, young Cheetah cubs have a large pale swath of hair on their back that looks akin to that of the Ratel (or Honey Badger). While it could be written off as a case of undirected convergent evolution, it seems more plausible to me that the Cheetah cubs have their pale patch of fur because of the Ratel’s fierce behavior. All the references to Ratels I’ve seen so far make it very clear that this animal, despite its size, is incredibly fierce when provoked, presumably going for the scrotum when attacking males of any species (although this is primarily anecdotal as yet). Estes even claims that firing buck shot, except at very close range, will not even penetrate the Ratel’s skin, making it a vicious little tank that animals know better than to mess with. Ratel’s do have a sweet tooth, however, sometimes being led by the Greater Honeyguide to the bees nest where it ravages the hive to get at its contents (some Ratels have even been found stung to death in hives).

So what does this have to do with Cheetahs? I have seen nothing as yet that absolutely confirms this hypothesis, but from what is known about selection and predation in Africa I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that Cheetah cubs owe their coat and safety to the Ratel. Let’s assume that when Cheetahs first speciated, the cubs had a coat similar to the adults in color and pattern (albeit a bit more fluffy), and that in order to ensure a successful hunt, Cheetah mothers had to sometimes leave cubs on their own in a relatively secluded place in order to successfully catch food. As any parent knows, babies don’t often stay where they are put, and baby Cheetahs would sometimes wander out into the open, impatiently awaiting their mother, only to be picked off by a hawk, lion, or other predator. At some point, however, at least one random mutation occurred that caused Cheetah cubs to have a pale patch running down their backs akin to a Ratel, which was already known as a terror by the animals in the area. Because of this convergent evolution, the cubs with this pattern were more often left unscathed and had reproductive success, this leading to the pattern we see in cubs today. This is a very simplified hypothesis, however, being that the cubs could have always had a little pale patch and it variated from cub to cub, eventually leading to the common pattern we see today, or it could have always been present to begin with. I don’t know if we’ll ever know what happened exactly, given that the last common ancestor for extant cats likely existed about 11 million years ago during the Miocene, but regardless of what occurred it seems that Cheetah cubs are reaping the benefits of the fierce habits of another creature.

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28 responses

29 04 2007
ClareCat

Thank you for your msg on my blog. I’m interested in evolution so i’m glad to have found laelaps (and your blogroll!)
I was randomly looking at your posts and the cheetah caught my eye because I’ve recently had a pic on my computer desktop of a cheetah cub. So I read about Ratels and realised that last week I first came across them in a picture book called “Honey, honey, lion!” by Jan Brett. Its about a nasty little honey badger who won’t share the honey with the Greater Honeyguide and the consequences are not pretty. Its very funny and amazingly drawn, with numerous african animals in minute detail. If you happen across it, it will probably be a nice change from your other reading :)

4 05 2007
tiffany

this website like totally rocks cheetahs like totally like rock

4 05 2007
tiffany

cheetahs are so cute because of their fluffiness and every one has to love them i also like cheetah cause they start with C.H.E.E which also is the beggining of cheese luango rockZ

4 05 2007
tiffany and jasmine

heetahs are so cute because of their fluffiness and every one has to love them i also like cheetah cause they start with C.H.E.E which also is the beggining of cheese luango rockZ the top one was by both of us 2

8 05 2007
Luna_the_cat

Convergent evolution is a plausible hypothesis. How would you test it? I could envision a test where you captured some cheetah cubs and dyed their fur to eliminate the light patch, and measured their relative survival rates compared to a control group, and tracked what predators did take them, as and when…
but I really wouldn’t want to do that to cheetah cubs, frankly.

8 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment and suggestion Luna, and in a way your test has already been carried out by nature. I think it was convergent in the sense that some cheetah cubs had a variation to look like the honey badgers, and therefore cubs with the light patch on top and dark on the bottom had a higher survival rate, but you’re right in that we’d have to do some kind of test to be 100% sure and I’m not willing to do that either; cheetahs are in enough trouble as it is. Observation, however, might hold a clue; if we could record how predators react to cheetah cubs when they come in contact with them, and these predators reacted at least some of the time in the same way they’d react to a honey badger, that might help confirm the hypothesis. Thanks again for the comment and ideas!

8 05 2007
Luna_the_cat

Hm, we need the cooperation of a good field ethographer.

And yeah, well…you needed something here other than fluff, begging everyone’s pardon and pun fully intended.

18 05 2007
Darren Naish

Dude – for the technical report check out..

Eaton, R. L. 1976. A possible case of mimicry in larger mammals. Evolution 30, 853-856.

It should be available through JSTOR, if you have access to this. Personally I find it highly unlikely that cheetah cubs are afforded any protection by this similarity – it seems more likely that the silver mane they have provides thermal protection, marks them as of ‘juvenile status’ and/or helps the mother to find them in the grass. Certainly cheetah cubs fare poorly against predators that find them, making the mimicry hypothesis weak.

Incidentally, the specific name of the living cheetah (jubatus, meaning maned) comes from the mane present in juveniles.

18 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks Darren; I’ll definitely check out the report and blog about it when I finish it (I think I have full access to JSTOR through my workplace). Thanks again for sharing your broad range of expertise with an amateur like me!

23 01 2008
Bat Man

I can believe it. Certainly yellow and black stripes are a code that insects use to communicate that “I sting” and some insects copy the code to intimidate their enemies.

22 05 2008
Gippy

I love Cheetahs! They are so cute! And fast like I am! I’m the fastest one at my school! ^^ Not to brag :D

30 06 2008
baybeeh_j

this is cool and i can use it 4 my project

4 07 2008
cantara wali

cool cheetahs, the fastest racers of all the animals.

21 07 2008
Tess

i love cheetahs i have tons of cheetah things (but not real fur).
i love when their babys they are really furry and how they make a chirping noise instead of meowing or roaring!!

14 02 2009
tilly

i love cheetahs!! there my fav animal and are sooooooooooooooooo cute ecpecially when there young.cheetah patterns are my fav. so when i see somthing in a shop i have to by it ?

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