Felid 'eyespots' are like human eyes, but not in the way you think

Everyone knows that part of the language of human facial expression is the flickering of the eye-whites as our gaze shifts, indicating changes in attention and emotion.

And most realise that one of the reasons why cats seem inscrutable is that their eye-whites are covered by their eyelids (e.g. see https://medium.com/medicine-encompassed/life-in-a-new-perspective-the-human-eye-vs-the-animal-eye-63dd6dcbbf4f and https://playfulkitty.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/robin-and-manna-2.jpg and https://me.me/i/if-we-had-cat-eyes-and-they-had-human-eyes-999957e0dd5e44b8b694627697ec80fe).

However, what tends to be overlooked is that the swivellings of the ear pinnae in cats might be similarly informative to the swivellings of our eyeballs - if only we humans possessed the mental 'software' to decode these messages coming from our pets (e.g. see https://www.catwiki.com/faqs/why-do-cats-put-their-ears-back/).

The idea is this: when individuals within a given felid species communicate face-to-face, they use a language of facial expression analogous to ours; it is just that whereas in humans 'the eyes have it', in felids 'the ears have it'.

But this idea gets even more intriguing. It is the paleness of the human sclera that makes it easy to track the movements of our eyeballs relative to our pigmented facial skin/eyebrows.

Could it be that an important aspect of the graphic patterns on the back-of-ear of most species of felids (albeit excluding the domestic cat) is partial visibility from in front, punctuating the ear-language by means of the same principle of small-scale pale/dark contrast?

The crucial fact is that when felids experience fear or anger they 'frown with their ears' by turning the ear pinnae backwards, displaying part of the back-of-ear to the front.

And thus arises the possibility of auricular semets (see my Journal Post of May 13, 2021, titled 'Introducing conspicuous patterns about the ears of ungulates' https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/milewski?page=7).

This shows the ears of the tiger (Panthera tigris) turned towards the viewer: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/a-beautiful-tiger-gm1200501984-343896028.

And this shows how the white spot on the back-of-ear becomes visible with a turn of one of the ear pinnae: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/amur-tiger-gm148950194-17845330.

It is not new to compare the back-of-ear pattern with 'eyespots'. The name 'ocelli', which means 'little eyes', has even been used (e.g. see http://www.f1hybridssavannahcats.com/breed/ears).

But most previous explanations of the pattern seen in https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/tiger-ears-gm89923374-2355780 and https://www.mindenpictures.com/stock-photo-tiger-panthera-tigris-showing-white-ear-spots-on-the-back-of-the-ears-naturephotography-image00539194.html and https://min.news/en/pet/bb986161e16714ac8437a563d6d1b271.html have been rather fanciful: a way for mothers to lead infants, or even a way to scare off enemies creeping up from behind.

In the following https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/tiger-portrait-gm820148228-132558979 and https://photos.com/featured/tiger-face-eduardo-cabral.html?product=art-print, the expression could show slight fear/annoyance or merely a shift of attention to a sound coming from behind.

Presumably members of a given felid species can make these distinctions much as we humans can differentiate between a lying eye-shift and an innocent sideways glance: context plus subtle differences of expression elsewhere on the same faces.

The following photos of the serval (Leptailurus serval) show how the 'eyespots' shift partly into view with a turning-back of the ear pinnae: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-serval-felis-serval-cub-on-termite-mound-showing-the-back-of-its-ears-29543432.html and https://www.alamy.com/serval-cat-leptailurus-serval-sitting-on-green-grass-field-with-closed-eyes-head-portrait-image272001371.html and https://i.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/001/363/236/ba2.jpg and https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-serval-cat-image5887271.

In all cases, these are presumably informative expressions to members of the same species. To the human viewer, there seems to be merely a shift of attention rearwards in most of these; only in the last photo is there apparent emotion.

However, to the felid viewer, emotion may be evident in the first three as well.

The difference in mental 'software' between us and the felid is that it takes the fang-baring expression for us to detect the annoyance - whereas in the eyes of felid mates/kin the slightest annoyance might be communicated by the auricular semet alone.

Posted on August 03, 2021 10:04 PM by milewski milewski


fascinating - thanks for sharing your blog post

Posted by apcorboy almost 3 years ago

@apcorboy You are most welcome

Posted by milewski almost 3 years ago

The following felid faces look human-like because the narrowing of the eyes has led to an impression that the iris of the felid is the human sclera, and the pupil of the felid is the human iris: https://www.boredpanda.com/human-like-cat-face-maine-coon-tatiana-rastorgueva/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic and https://www.scotsman.com/news/world/bizarre-footage-shows-collection-cats-bred-have-human-faces-1400709

Posted by milewski almost 3 years ago

Two photo-comparisons of human vs felid eyes in the following are worth looking at: https://www.playfulkitty.net/2013/09/20/eye-spy-humans-vs-cats/.

Posted by milewski almost 3 years ago

The puma (Puma concolor) is unusual among felids in how nebulous and variable the back-of-ear pattern is: https://www.kpbs.org/news/2021/feb/02/nature-pumas-legends-ice-mountains/. The above individual has a vague pale central spot, but in other photos the whole back-of-ear seems darkish.

Posted by milewski almost 3 years ago

Many small owls and kestrels have eye-like patterns on the back of their head. It has often been observed that birds defending a nest will attack the back of a person's head, but not the front. People dealing with Australian Magpies have even taking to wearing has with eye patterns on the back to prevent painful attacks! It's possible the ear spots of cats perform a similar task -- and they might also function for within-species communication.

Posted by sedgequeen almost 3 years ago

@sedgequeen Many thanks for your comment

Posted by milewski almost 3 years ago

Thank you!

Posted by beartracker about 2 years ago

Add a Comment

Sign In or Sign Up to add comments