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.