Anyone who has a cat can tell you that they have a huge variety of different coat patterns, from solid colors to intricate stripes and spots. Until recently, we didn’t know how these complex stripe patterns came to be during development. Now, scientists have discovered more about how tabby cats get their stripes.

Fur stripes are formed from hair follicles that produce different colors of hair, and hair color is determined by what type of melanin, the same pigment that causes different skin colors in people, the hair follicle uses. How do hair follicles in different regions of skin know what type of melanin to make to create a stripe pattern? Researchers noticed the first clue when looking at skin samples from embryonic cats. They observed that even before hair follicles started to develop, certain areas of skin had a thicker top layer. The thick and thin skin areas matched the striped hair color pattern that tabbies have, but the researchers could not yet tell whether the thick skin areas would turn into light or dark stripes. Some cats have a genetic mutation that causes thicker stripes of dark hair. By looking at skin samples from embryonic cats that have this mutation, the researchers could tell that the stripes of thicker skin correspond to what will become darker fur and the thin skin areas to light fur. Going one step further, the scientists found that even before the skin shows thick and thin areas, skin cells that will form a thicker skin area express a particular gene called Dkk4. Certain cat breeds have mutations in this gene, which could explain their different coat patterns.

Formation of coat pattern is an old mystery in biology, and the genetics behind the coat patterns that define different breeds of cats are unknown in many cases. These findings expand what we know about how different coat patterns can form and could be applicable to many animals besides domestic cats.

This study was led by Dr. Christopher Kaelin and Dr. Kelly McGowan, both senior scientists in Dr. Gregory Barsh’s lab. The lab is affiliated with the Stanford University department of Genetics in California and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Alabama.

Managing Correspondent: Gemma Johnson

Press Articles: “We finally know what turns cats into tabbies,” Popular Science

Original Journal Article: “Developmental genetics of color pattern establishment in cats,” Nature Communications

Image Credit: Rachel Wexler

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Cat a Tabby?

  1. Good article… TY. However this brings up a more important question.
    Have you found the mystery of how the tabby pattern lies on the cat’s body?
    The pattern of tabby on a cat is shown with the hair at natural rest.
    When looking at individual hair banding you see the color being turned off at different times. When laid flat with with hairs near that area the colors will line up to show the pattern. When the hairs is pushed back the opposite way the pattern will disappear because the alignment is no longer proper.
    The sharpness of the tabby patterns become the sharpest as that specific tabby pattern becomes more dominate in the cat. The hair follicle must be coded in such a way that the pattern of off and on stays the same but different than the hair follicles next to it.

    What gives the hair follicles the different timing that turns off and on the melanin producer in the right sequence (it is different in each follicle) to match the other follicles near it to align the proper tabby pattern when the hair is laid flat?

  2. This is the first time I visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. Good Work. keep it up.

  3. I have a brown tabby, make named Tygre, he is loved eyond words can express. He loved by me, my husband, and his cat sister Olivia, she is a tuxedo.

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