Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Eye Black: What Works for Football Players Works for the Cheetah

I remember when I was younger I would always wonder why baseball and football players wore black paint under their eyes.  My dad told me that the "eye black" was to help to reduce the glare that their eyes received from the sun.  Although some people seem to disagree whether or not this is effective for human sports players, it seems that several animals have evolved a similar pattern on their face!  But before we dive in, a very special thanks to Anne Price for her help with this post!

I imagine that there are a number of stories told by native peoples of Africa that explain the tear marks of the cheetah, which you can see in the picture above.  The one that I have heard before (which you can read by clicking HERE) tells of the cheetah being told by lions that she was not a cat, and instead was a dog.  The cheetah then went to talk with the wild dogs.  But the wild dogs also kicked the cheetah out, saying that she was a cat and not a dog.  The cheetah, sad with the fact that she did not seem to belong to either group, cried so much that the tear marks were burned into her face.
Some scientists believe that these black marks, which they called "malar stripes" or "malar marks," actually evolved to help the cheetah see in sunny conditions, by reducing glare and keeping the sun out of its eyes.  This would have been the original "eye black," a phenomenon whose roots extend back much further than the origins of baseball or football.  I was surprised when I was researching this natural eye black, as I thought it was a commonly cited fact that cheetahs had this eye black to reduce glare.  However, many of the sources just mentioned the malar stripes, and didn't actually address their function.  
In the book "Big Cat Diary: Cheetah," Jonathan and Angela Scott propose an alternative hypothesis.  Though they do mention the anti-glare hypothesis, the Scotts suspect that a more likely alternative is that the tear-marks serve to "accentuate facial expressions," which they say would be an "important consideration in social interactions with other cheetahs."  The tear marks, "along with the growls and hisses that are an important part of a cheetah's defensive repertoire," might "deter competitors from approaching."  While this is well and good for the cheetah, and is likely at least part of the reason why the cheetah has the malar stripes, I have a difficult time believing that this is the only reason why some animals evolved the stripes.  We will get to my reasoning in a second.
What I find really interesting about these stripes is that they are unique to the cheetah in the cat world.  The cheetah, as is mentioned in the African story above, is a very unique cat, different in many ways from others felines.  One way in which the cheetah is different is that it hunts primarily during the day, and is much less a nocturnal animal than most cats.  If you look at the eye of your house cat, look for two things.  The first is the size of the eye.  Though the cat is quite small compared to you, Mr. Whiskers has eyes that are only a bit smaller than yours!  Second, look at the pupils.  Unlike the pupils of humans that stay circular regardless of the level of dilation or constriction, cat pupils constrict to tiny diamond slits, but dilate to large circles.  This is because most cats are active at night and during the day, and in order to protect their eyes in a variety of light conditions, they have evolved very mobile pupils.  
My cat Chimney.  Notice her slit pupils.  And the One Direction pillow in the background.  Photo Credit: Dani Neher
The cheetah does not have diamond pupils, and instead has round pupils.  This stems from the fact that cheetahs are primarily diurnal, and usually hunt during the day.  According to the Scotts, "just like birds of prey," cheetahs have a "patch of highly light-sensitive cells on the retina known as the fovea."  These cells provide the cheetah with the "most precise visual perception," and enables them to "spot prey from as far away as 5 km (3 miles)."  I find this comparison to birds of prey interesting, as both the cheetah and the prairie falcon, another animal with malar stripes, would have the need to be able to spot prey from a great distance, and in sunny conditions.  This large North American falcon has very similar streaks of brown feathers beneath its eye, which flow down the face.  According to "The Prairie Falcon" by Stanley Anderson and John Squires, the "black mustachial stripes near the eyes...may further reduce glare."
This idea is supported by other bird of prey experts, such as Anne Price, the Curator of Raptors at the Raptor Education Foundation in Colorado.  Eager to learn more about the similar stripes on the face of the prairie falcon, I emailed Anne, and here's what she had to say:

It’s meant to reduce glare by having the sun strike or be concentrated in the area beneath the eye, leaving the area above in proper contrast.  The black lines under the eyes of cheetahs, most falcons (gyrfalcons and merlins being notable exceptions) and even flickers have malar stripes, though in flickers they serve as signals for courtship, not for better visibility of prey species!
Other falcons that have the malar stripe include the American kestrel....
....and the peregrine falcon.
Not all falcons have the malar stripe, however.  As Anne mentioned above, gyrfalcons and merlins are notable falcons that don't have the malar stripe, but here is another one: the African pygmy falcon, the smallest of the African raptors!  This is a picture that I took of one at the Denver Zoo.
Furthermore, the black streak under the eye is also seen on the face of many species that the cheetah preys upon.  According to the cheetah section in "Wild Cats of the World" by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, 91% of cheetah kills in the Serengeti are Thomson's gazelle.  In Kruger National Park, 68% of kills were the impala, and in other areas such as Botswana, springbok are an important part of the diet as well.  73.9% of the kills made by cheetahs in Nairobi National Park were Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, and impala.  As you can see in the pictures below, all of these antelope have that black streak under their eyes, though it is less pronounced in the Grant's gazelle and impala than it is in the Thomson's gazelle.  One of the biggest reasons for markings on an animal that don't aid in camouflage or sexual selection (i.e. differences between male and female that are used to attract a mate) is to help with species differentiation, so that they don't waste valuable time and resources attempting to breed with each other.  But since all of these antelope have the black tear marks, as well as both genders of the species, that's probably not the role that the tear marks were playing.*
A Cuvier's gazelle at the San Diego Zoo, which also has very similar malar stripes.
A Speke's gazelle at the San Diego Zoo, yet another gazelle that has the same sort of malar stripes.
It is these antelope that make me wonder whether the cheetah evolved the malar stripe to "accentuate facial expressions," as proposed by the Scotts.  In my experience, antelope such as the Thomson's gazelle don't really go around making faces at each other, at least nowhere near as much as cats do.  The fact that both the predator and prey in this scenario possess the same adaptation makes me wonder whether coevolution has occurred.
Coevolution is a biological phenomenon in which the evolution of one animal influences the evolution of another.  A classic example would be flowers and the insects that pollinate them.  Flowers need their pollen to be carried to other flowers in order for reproduction to occur.  Oftentimes, these flowers employ the use of bees and other insects to do the job for them.  But to make it worth their while, the flowers supply the insects with a delicious meal of nectar.  When the insects land to suck up the nectar, they also pick up some pollen.  Then, when they fly off to another flower to indulge in some more nectar, they unknowingly deposit some of the pollen, and simultaneously pick up some more!

I find it possible that coevolution has occurred in regards to the cheetah and its prey.  Imagine if a certain lineage of cheetah evolved that had the black tear marks beneath their eyes, while the rest of their cheetah brethren did not have this black streak.  If the black streak did help them see their prey a little better by reducing glare, then perhaps these cheetahs were more successful hunters, and produced more offspring because of it.  Suddenly, the gazelles and impala are faced with a formidable foe that can suddenly see farther than they used to be able to.  In order to compensate, it's possible that the antelope who also had black streaks under their eyes were able to see farther as well, and spot the approach of a predator from a greater distance.  Strangely enough, I haven't been able to find anything anywhere suggesting that coevolution might have occurred here, so who knows!  I'm just throwing this out there, I'm not saying that's definitely what happened, but it's a prospect which I find intriguing and thought worth sharing with all of you.

*To read more about species differentiation and the role it plays in the success of biological organisms and species diversity, click HERE to learn more about the effects of logging on a type of fish called cichlids.

Works Cited:

An interview with Anne Price.

Anderson, Stanley H., and John R. Squires. The Prairie Falcon. University of Texas Press, 1997. (accessed December 16, 2013).

"General Information About the Cheetah." Cheetah Conservation Fund. (accessed December 16, 2013).

"How The Cheetah Got Its Tears." Cheetah Conservation Fund. (accessed December 16, 2013).

Stokes, Donald, and Lillian Stokes. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. (accessed January 23, 2014).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Can we not build a physical contraption (i.e. camera/other photosensitive equipment) and surround it with alternating amounts of pigments to see if this actually works? Asking bird experts about what fundamentally seems to be a question about physics seems rather inappropriate.


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