Category Archives: Felids

A Natural History of Leopard Print

As both an animal enthusiast and a rockabilly aficionado, it should come as a surprise to no one that I am a huge fan of leopard print. The primal power of leopard print is rooted in two wildly divergent strains of retro glamour, simultaneously stirring up cultural memories of a time before color photography and a time before agriculture. It is 1955 C.E. and it is 19,055 B.C.E. It is Cadillacs and wildebeest, hippies and hunter-gatherers, Zulu royalty and the Rolling Stones, Mickey Hartigay & Jayne Mansfield and Adam & Eve.

And part of me wishes they HAD been Adam & Eve.

Leopard print has never gone out of style — and has probably never not been in style, somewhere on Earth. (Many paleontologists believe that dinosaurs wore leopard-like spots.) Perhaps the reason for its endurance is that its parents are these two very different nostalgias. One is a deep-seeded yearning for the Paleolithic and pre-civilization, a length of time far longer than post-civilization humanity, when we as a species were in a more even conversation with nature and depended more on our physical prowess, our animal senses, and our understanding of the wilderness. To be sure, there are many people on Earth who are not far removed from this lifestyle, but for those of us in the “first world,” nostalgia for the time of spears and shamans exists as a distant cultural memory, perhaps stitched into the threads of our genetic code, like a dream we can’t quite remember yet which tugs on our hearts upon waking. We cannot shake the feeling that something, somehow led us astray from our true identity as the human ape, and adorning ourselves in leopard print reminds us of our species’ connection to wildlife of the world and our once-intimate relationship to it.

The other type of nostalgia, of course, is this:

My perfect world: 80% leopard print, 20% babe.

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The Biology of LOLcats

I’ve been hard on you this month, regular readers. Every post in October has been a long-stemmed essay on either ecology or the history of European scientific exploration in the 19th century. So today, I’m going to reward you with something stupid and cute.

When it comes to conservation, all the attention goes to the Big Cats: the lions, the tigers, the jaguars, the cheetahs, the cougars. The zoologically initiated might also pay attention to the medium-sized cats: the lynxes, the bobcats, the ocelots. The way they’re promoted, you’d get the impression that our housecats are simply miniaturized lions; that after Mr. Fluffers, it’s pumas all the way up. But in fact, Felidae is a remarkably diverse family which includes many small wild cats, mostly unknown to the general public. Though, in our era of coddled, infantilized house pets, it’s a complete mystery why.

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Your Lying Eyes

The sunbittern of Central and South America appears, at first glance, to be a very normal and nondescript water bird. This knee-high, heron-like hunter is cryptically colored to blend in with the leaf litter around the stream beds where it pecks at snails, frogs, and small fish.

But if the camouflage fails, and a predator or rival gets too close, the sunbittern unleashes its full fury:

Suddenly, the bird has disappeared and a bug-eyed beast from hell has materialized in its place. Today, we reconsider an ecological classic: false eyespots.

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