After Thousands of Years, Researchers Have Discovered a New Cat Color. It's Called ‘Salty Licorice’

  • Researchers in Finland have found a curious new fur pattern in cats.

  • This unique pattern has been named “salmiak,” after a type of Finnish candy.

a salmiak cat
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The fur of cats is a fascinating thing. Calico cats, for example (also known as tri-color), have distinctive color patterns that make them attractive to certain humans. More importantly, however, they're also interesting at a genetic level. Most calicos are female; only one out of 3,000 will be male. And speaking of genetics, another intriguing type of cat with a completely new fur pattern has just been discovered.

This new kind of feline has been aptly named “salmiak,” which translates to “salty licorice.” Considering their origin and personality, researchers have hit the nail on the head with their choice of name.

Finnish mutation. Cats are fascinating creatures and, as such, they're the subject of many studies. This is how we know, for example, that cats listen to us all the time, and that, despite being a threat to many species, they are quite ineffective at hunting rats. We like to observe felines closely. And that's also why, in 2007, a group of Finnish researchers noticed an unusual fur pattern in certain cats.

In Petäjävesi, a central Finland village with about 4,000 inhabitants, some cats exhibited a pattern similar to that of the common tuxedo (black fur with a white chest). However, something caught human attention: the black tone in their fur was gradually becoming lighter and lighter.

Unidentified genetic background. There's a type of candy in Finland known as "salmiak," which is basically salty black licorice. Given that the color of this candy closely resembles the newly found cat fur pattern, the felines have inevitably become known as salmiak cats.

These animals, which descend from a wild population of black and black-white cats, have been closely monitored since their discovery. Sterilizing stray cats to control populations is a common practice in Finland, so until recently, it was unknown if they could reproduce; then, however, a rescued street cat with this fur pattern gave birth to a litter.

The University of Helsinki obtained a genetic sample and, together with the genetics company Wisdom Panel, analyzed the rare pigment. Using the sample and the MyCatDNA testing service, the researchers found that the white fur lacked a known genetic explanation. They then collected samples from other, similar cats, and obtained the same results: The atypical white pattern had an unidentified genetic background.

The KIT Gene. Seeing these results, the team decided to dig deeper and study the KIT gene, which is crucial for the development of multiple cells, including the melanocytes, responsible for pigments. Mutations in them cause syndromes such as piebaldism, where individuals have patches of colorless (white) hair, or leukoderma, which are white skin patches.

The white pigmentation in some cat patterns is related to KIT gene variants, so the researchers focused on this gene, suspecting it might be the cause. They found nothing. Sequencing the KIT genes of these cats revealed no variant that would explain the phenotype. As such, researchers decided to explore the region adjacent to the gene in two cats, and noticed that this area could, in fact, affect fur color.

A recessive trait. The team then analyzed DNA samples from 180 domestic cats in the university’s biobank. Some exhibited the desired phenotype and some didn’t. They found something interesting: Cats with one copy of the salmiak mutation didn’t display the characteristic fur. In addition all salmiak cats had two copies of the mutation.

This means that the salmiak fur is a recessive mutation, so the trait only appears if the kitten inherits one copy of the mutation from its mother and one from its father. Beyond explaining these cats’ curious coat, the finding revealed that in order to foster this trait, a male and female salmiak cat must mate.

All in all, hello to our salty licorice feline friends.

Images | Dwight Sipler from Stow, Marcin Floryan

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