Pigment patterning in animals generally occurs during early developmental stages and has ecological, physiological, ethological, and evolutionary significance. Despite the relative simplicity of color patterns, their emergence depends upon multilevel complex processes. Thus, theoretical models have become necessary tools to further understand how such patterns emerge. Recent studies have reevaluated the importance of epigenetic, as well as genetic factors in developmental pattern formation. Yet epigenetic phenomena, specially those related to physical constraints that might be involved in the emergence of color patterns, have not been fully studied. In this article, we propose a model of color patterning in which epigenetic aspects such as cell migration, cell-tissue interactions, and physical and mechanical phenomena are central. This model considers that motile cells embedded in a fibrous, viscoelastic matrix-mesenchyme-can deform it in such a way that tension tracks are formed. We postulate that these tracks act, in turn, as guides for subsequent cell migration and establishment, generating long-range phenomenological interactions. We aim to describe some general aspects of this developmental phenomenon with a rather simple mathematical model. Then we discuss our model in the context of available experimental and morphological evidence for reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, and compare it with other patterning models. We also put forward novel testable predictions derived from our model, regarding, for instance, the localization of the postulated tension tracks, and we propose new experiments. Finally, we discuss how the proposed mechanism could constitute a dynamic patterning module accounting for pattern formation in many animal lineages.
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