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Scientists reveal how tabby cats get their distinctive stripes

Tabby or not tabby, that is the question.

Tabby cats often have what looks like a letter "M" on their foreheads.
Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As anyone with a cat can tell you, felines don't surrender their secrets easily. But a new study, published Tuesday in the science journal Nature Communications, delves into a long-held kitty mystery: How exactly does a tabby cat's genes make those striking stripe patterns in its fur? 

"Tabby" isn't a breed; it's a distinct fur pattern common among cats. Tabby cats often have what looks like a letter "M" on their foreheads, plus bold stripes of varying design in their fur. The tabbys have made their mark on pop culture, too. Morris the 9Lives cat food mascot is an orange tabby, as are cartoon cats Garfield and Heathcliff.

In the new study, conducted by scientists affiliated with Alabama's HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and the Stanford University School of Medicine, 200 litters of nonviable embryos were examined, delving into the mystery of how patterns emerge in a developing cat.

"We think this is really the first glimpse into what the molecules (involved in pattern development) might be," Dr. Gregory S. Barsh, one of the report's authors, told The New York Times.

The study found that differences in the expression of the embryo's genes determined the colors they would later produce when growing hair follicles. Seemingly identical cat-skin cells can acquire different genetic signatures that later result in the cat's intricate fur patterns. The same could hold true for large wild cats, such as leopards and tigers.

The new research determined that a gene known as Dickkopf 4 (Dkk4) is vital to the process. Some cats, such as the elegant Abyssinian, carry what's called a ticked pattern, where instead of stripes, the cat may appear similar to a tabby in some areas, yet have smaller, fleck-like markings. The study shows that this comes when the Dkk4 gene is mutated in those cats.

It all may seem like more than you wanted to know about your favorite feline, but the study notes that "understanding the basis of the animal color pattern is a question of longstanding interest for developmental and evolutionary biology."