Tabby cats can be one of several tabby patterns but the two main ones are Mackerel (stripes) and Classic/Botched (swirls).
The sharp, evenly spaced mainly vertical stripes of the Mackerel tabby cat are among the most common of coat patterns in the domesticated cat. In the “blotched tabby ” or a “classic tabby”, the stripes look more like long, irregular swirls. This pattern is seldom seen in the wild cats, with the exception of the king cheetah.
The Blotched tabby pattern is also called the Classic Tabby or a Marbled Tabby pattern depending on which breed or cat registry is part of the discussion.
The King Cheetah
In the king cheetah, the spots of the common cheetah seem to merge into large blotches, and stripes develop on the animal’s back.
On the left of the photo is the common cheetah showing the spotted pattern. On the right is a king cheetah showing how the back has stripes instead of spots.
At one time, it was thought that the king cheetah was a separate species. Then, when the cheetah in the wild was observed with a litter of kittens in which all were spotted except one that had the King cheetah stripes, observers realized that it was not a different species, but a different pattern, assumed to be due to a recessive gene. However, until recently, the actual gene and the mechanism was unknown.
The Taqpep Gene
Published in the September 2012 issue of the journal “Science”, researchers announced that they’ve found the gene that determines whether a cat will have the more common tabby pattern of stripes or have blotches, christening it the Taqpep gene. What makes the study results even more interesting, is that the Taqpep gene also determines the coat pattern in cheetahs.
Comparing Tabby Patterns Of Domestic Cat & The Cheetah
The Initial Research
Researchers studied DNA samples and tissue samples from feral cats in Northern California captured for sterilization and release, along with small skin biopsies and blood samples from captive and wild South African and Namibian cheetahs.
All the mackerel tabbies studied had a normal version of a gene the researchers named Transmembrane Aminopeptidase Q ( Taqpep ) while all the blotched tabbies had a mutated form of the gene.
- 58 of 58 blotched tabbies had a mutation in each of its two copies of Taqpep
- 51 of 51 mackerel tabbies had a least one unmutated version of the Taqpep gene.
The Edn3 Gene
Levels of the Taqpep gene didn’t change between dark and light areas on the cheetah skin samples, however, another gene, Edn3 , was active at the base of the black hairs. The researchers studied domesticated cat embryos at several stages of development and found that the tabby pattern appears only after the hairs begin to grow at 7 weeks of gestation. Meanwhile, levels of Taqpep increase throughout gestation. The researchers propose that very early in development, Taqpep establishes a pattern of stripes or spots, which is then implemented by varying levels of Edn3 as the embryo grows. The role of Taqpep in setting the pattern early on also explains why the number of stripes or spots doesn’t change as the cat ages .
The scientists identified two genes involved in determining the pattern of a tabby coat:
- Taqpep: Determines the actual pattern
- Edn3: Controls hair color in the cats’ coat patterns