A New Cat Color Is Defying Genetic Expectations (2024)

From roots to tips, this fur tells a tale of evolutionary wonder.

By Jackie Appel
A New Cat Color Is Defying Genetic Expectations (1)
  • A new type of cat coat color has officially been discovered.
  • Named salmiak, or ‘salty liquorice,’ the cats have hair strands that start out black, and become white the further they grown from the follicle.
  • It turns out the unique color is caused by a recessive genetic mutation, rather than the expression of a gene known to turn cats white.

You’ve probably heard of spooky black cats, chaotic orange cats, and distinguished-looking tuxedo cats. If you’re really into cats, you might have even lesser-known color variants like seal point and ticked tabby. But there’s officially a new cat color in town— salmiak, or ‘salty liquorice.’

The pretty black, white, and grey shade—named for a popular snack food in Finland, where this coat color has been making itself known—is thanks to a fur strand that starts off black near the root, but grows whiter and whiter out towards the tip. The coat was first spotted in 2007, and in 2019, it was brought to the attention of a group of cat experts lead by feline geneticist Heidi Anderson. Since then, the group has been trying to figure out exactly what causes this shade to express itself, and recently, they finally figured it out. A paper on the discovery has been published in the journal Animal Genetics.

When you’re digging into cat colors—or expressions of genetic traits in general, honestly—you start with the obvious and work your way out. So, the researchers naturally started by assuming that this new variant was just a fun way for the white-making ‘dilution’ gene to make itself known.

See, technically speaking, cats only come in two colors—black and orange. Any other color is either a combination of those two colors, a faded version of one of those colors (which is caused by the dilution gene) or both. So, when experts started seeing salt-and-pepper kitties running around, the natural assumption was that these were an interesting new expression of the dilution gene coming into play. Add a little more white than usual to your standard black cat, and you get salty liquorice.

But after digging through all the known genetic variations that control the expression of that dilution gene in coat color, the team came up empty. So, they took the next step—sequencing the entire genome of two of these special felines and digging through the whole mess of genetic data to find what was causing these new coats to appear.

It turns out that the answer was in what wasn’t there. “There was a huge chunk of sequence missing downstream from the KIT gene,” Anderson told New Scientist, referencing a gene known to affect white patterns in the coats of animals. And these cats were just… missing a piece of DNA right nearby.

After testing 181 cats to make sure they knew what they were seeing, the team was able to confirm that the missing sequence was in fact responsible for the salmiak coat color. And the mutation was recessive—the cat would only express this color if it inherited the mutation from both parents, which explains why this coloration isn’t a common one.

Now that they’ve solved the mystery, the team is happy to sit back and admire their pretty kitties along with the rest of the world. “These coats have aroused a lot of admiration for years,” Anderson told New Scientist. “It’s really exciting that we now have some genetic explanation for it.”

But they’re not just putting their feet up. According to a blog post written by Anderson, the solving of this puzzle both “enriches our understanding of feline coat color genetics” and could be “valuable for breeding efforts, potentially contributing to the preservation of this trait in our feline companions.”

Hopefully, we’ll continue to see these fancy felines for years to come.

A New Cat Color Is Defying Genetic Expectations (2)

Jackie Appel

Associate News Editor

Jackie is a writer and editor from Pennsylvania. She's especially fond of writing about space and physics, and loves sharing the weird wonders of the universe with anyone who wants to listen. She is supervised in her home office by her two cats.

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