WEDNESDAY, Oct. 20 (HealthDay News) -- A new British study reveals why leopards have spots.

British researchers matched the markings of 35 species of wild cats to a mathematical model of pattern development in order to learn more about what drives the evolution of the cats' markings.

Patterning -- especially irregular or complex patterns -- is more likely among leopards and other cats that live in dense habitats, in the trees, and are active at low light levels. This suggests that this type of patterning evolved for camouflage, said the University of Bristol team.

They also noted that these patterns can evolve and disappear relatively quickly.

These findings explain why black leopards are common but there are no black cheetahs. Unlike cheetahs, leopards live in a wide variety of habitats and have varied behavioral patterns. Because of this, atypical colors and patterns have become stable in leopards.

Of the 35 wild cat species included in the study, only tigers always had vertically elongated patterns, which are not associated with a grassland habitat, as might be expected. But tigers appear well camouflaged, which raises questions about why vertical stripes are not more common among wild cats, the researchers said.

The study is published Oct. 20 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

More information

The African Wildlife Foundation has more about leopards.