Allen, a researcher in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, and his colleagues made the determination after collecting images from the Internet of 37 wild cats.
Rectangular crops of selected images were taken to focus on coat patterns. Data from the images, along with information concerning the size of each species, its habitat, characteristic behaviors and more, was then plugged into a mathematical model of pattern development.
The model, outlined in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, determined that spotted cats and cats with irregular coat patterns, such as leopards and jaguars, live in dense environments like tropical rainforests.
"Spots are also more common in species that spend greater amounts of time moving in trees, and in those that are active at lower light levels," said Allen.
Dark-colored coats, which are common to leopards and jaguars but unknown to cheetahs, were tied to species that may roam both day and night and that occupy a wide variety of habitats. Solid-colored coats were linked to cats that are active during the day, usually walk on the ground and that live in open habitats, such as in deserts or on the plains.