The making of mysterious mazes: How animals got their complex colorations

The making of mysterious mazes: how animals got their complex colorations
Pattern blending. Complex patterns can be formed by "pattern blending" between simple motifs via hybridization. Credit: Seita Miyazawa

Why do leopards have spots and zebras have stripes? Many biologists have tried to answer these questions and have provided interesting hypotheses, including camouflage, thermoregulation, and insect repellent. But how did animals get these skin patterns? It is still difficult to answer this question. Evolutionary mechanisms underlying the diversity of animal colorations, especially complex and elaborate ones, have been largely unexplored.

Now, in a new study published in the journal Science Advances, a researcher at Osaka University shows that on can evolve through a simple mechanism, namely pattern blending by hybridization.

Comprehensive understanding of the diversity of animal patterns

Each animal lineage has a variety of color patterns. So far, few studies have examined their diversity across the whole range of a lineage; thus, information was limited about what kind of pattern motifs exist and how many have them. This was one of the reasons for the difficulty in understanding how animal color patterns have evolved.

In this vein, Dr. Seita Miyazawa, a researcher at Osaka University, conducted a pattern analysis on an unprecedented scale of more than 18,000 fish species to investigate the relationships among pattern motifs. By looking at which species with which particular motifs are closely related, Miyazawa found an unexpectedly strong association between intricate maze-like patterns and simple spot patterns.

"This seems counterintuitive because these patterns are very different in appearance," says Miyazawa, "but it is strikingly consistent with the prediction derived from a ."

The making of mysterious mazes: how animals got their complex colorations
Fish color pattern diversity and associations among pattern motifs. Pattern analysis of more than 18,000 fish species (upper left) revealed strong associations between camouflaged maze patterns and simple spot motifs (lower right). Credit: Seita Miyazawa

Pattern blending hypothesis

Previously, by using a mathematical model, Miyazawa and colleagues had presented a hypothesis on animal color pattern formation. They showed that the blending of two simple spot patterns by hybridization resulted in a complex maze-like pattern.

What is predicted from this is the possibility that animals with "maze patterns" have arisen from the blending of patterns by hybridization between species with two different spot patterns. The researcher tested this pattern blending hypothesis by analyzing the patterns and genomes of a representative fish group, pufferfishes of the genus Arothron.

"I found that several with maze patterns have actually been derived from hybridization between light- and dark-spotted species," says Miyazawa. "Although expected, this was amazing."

The making of mysterious mazes: how animals got their complex colorations
Pattern blending in model simulation and actual animals. Blending of light and dark spots via "in silico hybridization" results in maze patterns (left). Genomic analyses confirmed the hybrid origin of fishes having maze patterns (right). Credit: Seita Miyazawa (left), Photographs by Hiroshi Senou, Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Natural History (1), The Kagoshima University Museum (2), and Keiichi Matsuura (3).

Further analysis suggested that similar pattern blending events may have occurred in many other fish groups. "This indicates that the pattern blending mechanism may be extensively involved in the enrichment of color pattern diversity," says Miyazawa, "possibly in other animal groups as well."

In recent years, many findings have been reported that indicate hybridization has been involved in the evolutionary process in many animal species, including modern humans. "Pattern blending may also have contributed to biodiversity as one of the driving forces that can bring to animal evolution," says Miyazawa.

Explore further

How the zebrafish got its stripes

More information: "Pattern blending enriches the diversity of animal colorations" Science Advances (2020). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb9107
Journal information: Science Advances

Provided by Osaka University
Citation: The making of mysterious mazes: How animals got their complex colorations (2020, December 2) retrieved 18 January 2021 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments