#BestSpots Contest Highlights Why Animals Have Spots

A Twitter throwdown among scientists reveals more of the beauty of nature.

With a simple tweet, Anne Hilborn threw down the gauntlet.

“What are the best spots? Deez spots,” tweeted the Virginia Tech Ph.D. student, who is studying cheetahs in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

Less than three hours later, Sophie Gilbert, a wildlife biologist at the University of Idaho, responded: "What are the world's most beautiful spotted animals? Cheetah's gotta be in there... I'd argue deer fawns, 2..."

With that, the #bestspots debate was on. Soon, biologists around the world were posting photos of their favorite spotted animals, from insects and octopuses to leopards and tapirs. When those researchers studying striped animals started to feel left out, the #beststripes debate opened up, becoming so popular that #bestspots became a trending topic on Twitter and was turned into one of the platform’s so-called “Moments.”

To Hilborn, however, the spots versus stripes question was really no debate.

Spots and stripes aren’t just around to win contests on Twitter, however. Biologist Theodore Stankowich at the University of California, Long Beach, who studies pattern and coloration in mammals, says that animals have spots for a variety of reasons. Some animals use spots to help attract mates. Butterflies use the eyespots on their hindwings not for stealth but to scare away potential predators.

Spots allow stealth hunters like cheetahs, which sneak up on their prey, to remain unseen by their future meal until the last possible moment. They also allow prey to hide from predators, especially from far away. Some animals, like deer and tapirs, have spots when they’re born but lose them as they grow.

Even Hilborn and Stankowich have a hard time finding their species in the field. Hilborn has to keep her eyes on her study subjects at all times, lest she lose them in the long grass of the Serengeti. “If you take your eyes off them for a minute, they can just disappear,” she said.

When Stankowich was looking for a small deer fawn in the grass, he only saw the animal when it sensed his presence just a few feet away and bounded off. “I didn’t even have a chance to grab my camera out of my bag,” he said.

Hilborn’s cheetahs have plain spots, whereas other animals, like leopards, actually have rosettes, which are spots surrounded by a circle. Still other species have blotchy patches that look “like someone threw paint on the animal in a really random way,” Stankowich said.

For Hilborn, these lighthearted debates provide a way to introduce other people to wildlife and to humanize those individuals who have devoted their lives to studying it.

“It’s more informal and far more engaging than any research paper,” Hilborn concluded.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter. She’s team #besttabby, for her brown tabby cat.