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The look of a Maine Coon

Maine Coons were working cats of the early New England settlers. The cats protected the grain stores from mice. Without the luxury of a nice warm fireplace, Maine Coons typically had to survive the harsh New England winters on their own. Through natural selection (according to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest), only those cats who could withstand the cold and snow survived. With a mixture of long and short hair, large tufted ears, oversized furry feet, and beautiful fluffy tail, the Maine Coon is built to survive New England's cold winters.

The show standard for a Maine Coon calls for a large well-boned cat with long hair overall. The hair should be shorter at the shoulders, which presumably enabled these cats to move through the New England woods without becoming entangled in trees and brush. Stiffer guard hairs along their backs and sides served to insulate the cats.

The tail should be full and as long as the body, so if you wrap the tail back toward the cat's head, it should reach the shoulders. Below, together with their bushy tails, the long fluffy hair on their britches, bellies and the ruff around their necks helped provide warmth and enabled the cats to lie on snow without sinking into it. The long tufts between their toes functioned as natural snowshoes, evenly distributing the weight of the cat over a larger area for sure footing on ice and snow.

 

How Maine Coons inherit their color, from the basics of heredity to the genetics of color

Colorful folklore abounds to explain the Maine Coon's origin.

Recognized for their wonderful personalities AND their good looks, Maine Coons were America's first show cat

 

Classic Maine Coon Expressions in a slideshow set to music
   

Many people think of a brown cat when they think of a Maine Coon. Although many Maine Coons are brown in color, a variety of colors and patterns are accepted in the breed standard. Using the navigation bar at the bottom of the slideshow, you can view some of the looks common to the Maine Coon breed. Also of interest, the solid white cat in photo 07 is odd-eyed. She has one gold and one blue eye.

Maine Coons that have stripes are said to have tabby markings. Cats without stipes are referred to as solid-colored.

Either solid-colored (without stripes) or tabby Maine Coons may have varying amounts of white on their faces, necks, bodies, and paws. Cats with white are refered to as parti-colored. An otherwise brown tabby that has white on its face and paws is called a brown tabby and white. A small amount of white on, and just under, the chin of a tabby is common, and does not make the cat a parti-color.

A tortie is a cat with two solid colors, red and black. Tortie is short for tortoiseshell, as in the turtle. On the other hand, a torbie (also called a patched tabby) is a tortoiseshell tabby. On a torbie, the stripes can make the red difficult to see and sometimes appears only on the feet. So if you see stripes, the tortie is a torbie.

   

Maine Coons exhibit two distinct patterns of tabby stripes, classic and mackerel. The two brown tabbies below demonstrate each pattern.

In the classic pattern (right), the stripes appear more like swirls, rather than straight lines, on the sides of the body. Ideally, there are also long stripes running along the top of the cat's back from head to tail. When the pattern is very "clear", you can discern what appears to be a "bulls eye" on each of the cat's sides, a circle with a line through it.

In the mackerel pattern (left), the stripes appear as solid or broken lines, usually looking more like long dashes. The stripes run vertically, up and down perpendicular to the ground.

 
 

So, you might ask, how do the stripes form? The ground color of a tabby is actually considered to be the light color. Generally speaking, tabbying results when ticked light-colored hairs alternate with solid dark-colored hairs to form a pattern.

A little science here. A pigment is a material that selectively absorbs or reflects color. We perceive color according to the light that is reflected. The pigment granules that cause coloration in each hair of the cat's coat contain either eumelanin (black melanin, which absorbs almost all light), or phaeomelanin (red melanin, which refracts light in the red-orange-yellow range). The cat's genes control the size and shape of the melanin granules that produce the color of each hair shaft, and in their totality, the color of the individual hair shafts determine the overall color of the cat.

Ticking, which causes individual hairs to have bands of alternating light and heavy pigmentation (or coloring) is the result of the agouti gene. The agouti gene allows full pigmentation when the hair starts to grow, then slows down the synthesis of pigment for a while, and then turns it back on. When the hair stops growing, pigment synthesis stops. As a result, the hair shaft that has dense pigment (which creates a dark color) at the tip, then a band of yellow to orange, then a band of dense pigment gain, fading to yellow to orange at the root, nearest the skin. The absense of ticking causes solid color. By suppressing the ticking, the non-agouti gene, as it is called, produces hairs with essentially the same density of pigment all along the hair shaft (except at the root where it may fade).

A tabby can be thought of as a cat with light-colored ticked ground hairs that are mixed with darker-colored hairs that form the markings. The hairs that make up the ground color show less-color-dense yellow to orange agouti bands along the hair shafts. Typically, the agouti bands are a drab yellow-beige color. However, polygenetic factors (where more than one gene are believed to interact with each other in creating the overall physical appearance of a trait) that are not fully understood known as rufousing will make the color of the agouti band a richer orange, producing a rich warm apricot ground color in the tabbies.

Rufousing can also affect the color of the dark-colored stripes. Brown tabby patterns are genetically black, but strong rufousing produces a rich brown ticking in the hairs that make up the stripes.

This is just the beginning... The science behind the many colors of Maine Coon cats is a very interesting subject, so we thought you might enjoy, first, an introduction to the basics of heredity and, then, the genetics of color: how color is inherited in Maine Coon cats.

 

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