Sat, Sep 02, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Chunghsing University physics team explains how leopards get their spots

By Su Meng-chuen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Liaw Sy-sang, a professor of physics at Chunghsing University, yesterday shows leopard coat patterns created by his reasearch team.


Liaw Sy-sang (廖思善), a professor in the physics department at Chunghsing University, and his team of researchers on Thursday announced the results of a study on how the spots on leopards and jaguars develop.

The research project, which was sponsored by the National Science Council and Chunghsing University, has attracted international interest, and the results have been published in the internationally acclaimed magazine Nature, while a Los Angeles TV station plans to report the results in an hour-long program.

Liaw and his team have used a mathematical equation in their research developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing in 1952 -- called a "reaction-diffusion equation."

Liaw said that researchers have long been intrigued by the question of whether it would be possible to describe the development of patterns in nature, such as those on a leopards back, in scientific terms.

He and others thought it may be possible to use Turing's reaction-diffusion equation to describe these patterns, but the lack of sufficient calculating capacity -- such as that done regularly by modern computers -- meant that it remained just a hunch.

However, with the advent of computers, it became possible to use Turing's equation to describe patterns on zebras and other animals, but it could not describe more complicated patterns.

Liaw and assistant professor Liu Jui-tang join forces with Professor Philip Maini, head of the Center for Mathematical Biology at Oxford University, to try to solve the complex patterns on members of the cat family like leopards and jaguars using Turing's equation.

Despite repeated trials, however, their attempts failed, until they read an article explaining how the patterns of grown cats changed as they grew older, which made them realize that maybe they had to divide the equation into two stages.

Adding different variables such as length of the time the coat pattern had developed and the speed of change, they successfully managed to replicate the coat pattern of jaguars.

Liaw said that after a year of research, they were able to reproduce the round spots of young jaguars as well as the irregular spots, rings and other patterns of grown jaguars.

Liaw went on to say that animal coat patterns in the past were described in terms of genetic studies, but could not give a detailed description of the whole process.

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