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Why Do Animals Have Lighter Fur On Their Bellies?

Animals have mastered blending in with their surroundings. Yet, why do some animals have lighter fur on their bellies than on their backs?

cat stretching on oriental rug

Photo: Ken (Flickr)

A white belly helps animals, like the cat above, blend in with their surroundings.

Ever notice how many animals have lighter fur on their bellies than on their backs?

Think about it. Cats and dogs often have lighter-colored bellies. Deer and foxes. Wolves. Coyotes. Chipmunks. You get the idea.

But Why?

We can understand, for example, why a zebra has stripes–stand it in among a clump of trees or grasses and it is well camouflaged.

The same holds true for other fur patterns. They are ways of fitting in so that you won’t easily be seen. A pale belly, in fact, serves the same function–it helps you blend into your background rather than stand out.

How Do Pale Bellies Help Animals Blend In?

It’s because whether you evolved in the savannas of Africa or the woods of North America, the sun was always in the same place: overhead. That means more light comes from above than below.

True, light gets reflected back up from the ground, but not as much as comes down from the sky. More light lands on a four-footed animal’s back than on its belly, making the back brighter and the belly darker. That’s no good for hiding.

Pale Belly, Dark Back

Think of it this way. If you are in a green forest, you might hide yourself by wearing green clothes. Then you’d blend in. But if your pants are dark green and your shirt bright green, you will once again stand out.

By having a pale belly and a dark back, animals balance out the amount of light that reflects off their bodies. The dark back absorbs more, the pale belly reflects more. The contrast between top and bottom is diminished, and it is easier to blend in.

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