Graipel, M. E., Bogoni, J. A., Giehl, E. L. H., Cerezer, F. O., Cáceres, N. C., & Eizirik, E. (2019). Melanism evolution in the cat family is influenced by intraspecific communication under low visibility. PLoS ONE, 14(12).
Melanism in the cat family has been associated with functions including camouflage, thermoregulation and parasite resistance. Here we investigate a new hypothesis proposing that the evolution of melanism in cats has additionally been influenced by communication functions of body markings. To evaluate this hypothesis, we assembled a species-level data set of morphological (body marks: white marks on the backs of ears) and ecological (circadian activity: Arrhythmic/nocturnal, and environmental preference: Open/closed) characteristics that could be associated with communication via body markings, and combined these data with a dated molecular phylogeny. Next, we tested the association between melanism and communication, first by relating species’ body marks with their ecological conditions, using a Bayesian implementation of the threshold model. Second, to explore the evolution of characteristics potentially influencing melanism in cat species, we modeled their evolution relative to melanism using models of coordinated vs. independent character changes. Our results suggest that white marks are associated with intraspecific communication between individuals that have non-melanistic phenotypes, as well as towards melanistic individuals (without white marks). The absence of white marks in a melanistic individual tends to be a limiting condition for intraspecific visual communication at night, resulting in an evolutionary dilemma for these species, i.e. to be almost invisible at night, but not to communicate visually. The comparative analysis of several evolutionary models indicated more support for the evolution of melanism being coordinated with the evolution of arrhythmic activity and white marks on the backs of ears.