While not a specific breed of cat, "tabby cats" make up around 60-70% of all domestic cats in the world. That means roughly two-thirds of all cats that you might encounter will display some sort of stripe, dot, or swirl in their coat pattern. And as an extra special mark, they often sport what looks like an 'M' on their forehead.
However, scientists didn’t really know what gave tabbies this distinctive appearance - until now.
In a recent study published in Nature Communications by Christopher B. Kaelin, Kelly A. McGowan & Gregory S. Barsh, researchers reported that the gene responsible for the tabby pattern are named Dickkopf WNT Signaling Pathway Inhibitor 4 (DK44 for short).
DK44 is a "secreted molecule," a messenger protein that tells other skin cells surrounding it that this is where the dark hair will grow - resulting in the dark stripes that make tabbies, well, tabbies.
According to new research, DK44 genes activate in the embryo even before the cat’s fur begins to develop. Examining individual skin cells under a microscope, the team of scientists discovered that these early skin cells will imitate a tabby’s stripes long before the development of hair follicles or pigment. This is the first time this development has been seen in embryonic cells.
Interestingly enough, this discovery of the origin of tabby stripes has helped to prove Alan Turing's reaction-diffusion theory of mathematical biology, which mathematically explains how patterns spontaneously emerge in nature.
The researchers speculate that this genetic process might also be present in non-domesticated cats (wildcats), but some believe that these stripes developed from the Near Eastern wildcat which is a direct ancestor to our current domesticated cats.
According to the National Geographic, the embryonic cells were collected as part of an "ethically approved research protocol" using nearly "A thousand embryos that otherwise would have been discarded from veterinary clinics that spay feral cats, many of which are pregnant when admitted."
And for an extra tabby fact: The origin of the term "tabby" can be traced to French tabis, stemming from Medieval Latin attabi, from Arabic attabi. This originated from al-Attabiya, a suburb of Baghdad where silk was made, itself named for the Prince Attab. Cats got the name tabby after similarity of their coats to the patterned silk cloth ... or maybe the cats inspired the pattern!