A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for October 2015

[CAT] “Are Cats Domesticated?”

At least one person forwarded me links to Ferris Jabr’s New Yorker article examining the question of whether or not housecats are a domesticated species.

At first, the cat was yet another opportunistic creature that evolved to take advantage of civilization. It was essentially a larger version of the rodents it caught. Somewhere along the line, people shifted from tolerating cats to welcoming them, providing extra food and a warm place to sleep. Why? Perhaps because of the cat’s innate predisposition to tameness and its inherent faunal charm—what the Japanese would call kawaii. Look up photos of the thirty-eight or so wildcat species and you might be surprised at how easy it is to picture one curled up on the couch. Dogs likely initiated their own domestication, too, by prowling around campfires in search of food scraps. Whereas our ancestors quickly harnessed dogs to useful tasks, breeding them to guard, hunt, and herd, they never asked much of cats. We have also been slow to diversify cat breeds. Many dog, horse, and cattle breeds are more than five hundred years old, but the first documented cat fanciers’ show didn’t take place until 1871, at the Crystal Palace, in London, and the most modern cat breeds emerged only within the past fifty years.

This relatively short and lenient period of selective breeding is manifest in the cat genome, Wesley Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis*, said. In a study published last year, Warren and his colleagues analyzed DNA from several wildcats and breeds of domestic cat, including an Abyssinian named Cinnamon. They confirmed that, genetically, cats have diverged much less from their wildcat ancestors than dogs have from wolves, and that the cat genome has much more modest signatures of artificial selection. Because cats also retain sharper hunting skills than dogs, abandoned felines are more likely to survive without any human help. In some countries, feral cats routinely breed with their wildcat cousins. “There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” Warren said. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated.”

Not all researchers agree. “I don’t think it makes sense to talk about animals as semi- or fully domesticated,” Greger Larson, a paleogeneticist and archeologist at Oxford University and an expert on domestication, said. “Any threshold you try to define will necessarily be arbitrary.” Larson tends to agree with the views of Melinda Zeder, an archeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has written extensively on the domestication of both plants and animals. Zeder characterized domestication as an ongoing symbiosis between humans and another species—“a sort of pact that ends up being mutually beneficial,” she said. This relationship, she argued, can follow many paths and result in somewhat different outcomes, which she has catalogued. Sometimes people gradually domesticate a prey species—sheep, goats, cattle—or deliberately remove non-prey animals from the wild and breed them for a specific purpose, as we’ve done with horses. In other cases, hunger draws a wild animal—dogs, chickens, guinea pigs, cats—to human society, where it becomes increasingly tolerant of people. Even a single domestic lineage can contain varying degrees of dependency and a range of temperaments.

I’m inclined to say that they are whatever they want to be.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:27 pm

[CAT] “How A Photographer Captured The Beauty of Siberian Tigers”

Simon Worrell of National Geographic interviewed Sooyong Park, a Korean photographer whose dedicated photography in adverse conditions has produced the book Great Soul Of Siberia: Passion, Obsession And One Man’s Quest For The World’s Most Elusive Tiger.

You studied literature for 17 years, and you write like a poet. How did you end up studying Siberian tigers? What is it about these tigers that draws the muse out of you?

For a long time I have been drawn to the beauty of living things and while literature is useful for explaining humanity, it is not enough for explaining nature. Science is more useful, but science is very dry. So I always wanted to fuse science and literature. To do that, I had to immerse myself in nature and observe living things with my own eyes and become one of nature’s species.

I focused on Siberian tigers, which are endangered and elusive. It was a challenge, and the difficulty in finding them led me deep into nature. After many years of study, I could identify individual tigers and recognize their family members. Understanding tiger families allowed me to peer more deeply into their lives: how they love, how they are born, how they live and die. They are not so different from human beings. Knowing that inspired compassion.

You spent six to seven months alone in a bunker during the long Siberian winters in hopes of filming Siberian tigers. Describe your bunker and how you survived the isolation and cold.

We called our bunkers ‘hotels’ to make them seem more comfortable. But in reality they were cramped, underground spaces measuring six feet by six feet by five. I had to stoop when standing up, but I spent most of my time sitting: waiting and watching for tigers with my camera. Outside it was -20F and snowy. I was unable to shower or turn a light on, and had to remain very quiet so as not to scare off the tigers, even though sometimes I wanted to shout. I felt as though I were in solitary confinement. I would read the labels of food containers for entertainment.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:25 pm

[CAT] “As Tiger Numbers Dwindle, Will Smugglers Target a Different Cat?”

National Geographic‘s Rachael Bale tells a depressingly plausible story.

Among wild cats, clouded leopards are increasingly coveted—and bred in captivity—for commercial purposes, according to a new study from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They’re being sold into the pet trade, to tourist attractions offering cat encounters, and to other such profit-driven businesses.

Researchers Neil D’Cruze and David Macdonald reviewed import and export records filed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates international wildlife trade, and found a 42 percent increase in the commercial trade of live clouded leopards from 1975 to 2013.

Clouded leopards are native to Southeast Asia and named for their distinctive spotted coats. They’re one of the smallest big cats, weighing up to 50 pounds and growing up to three feet long. They belong to an entirely separate taxonomic group from snow leopards and “regular” leopards, such as African and Indian leopards.

The reason for their new popularity has much to do with the decline of tigers, now estimated to number no more than 3,200, whose bones, feet and other body parts are highly prized in traditional medicine and for warding off evil.

Some 10,000 clouded leopards remain in the wild, with no single population larger than 1,000 individuals, spread from Indonesia to the foothills of the Himalayas and into China. They face a high risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, a widely accepted international list of the conservation status of species.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:19 pm

[CAT] Shakespeare, Saturday morning

Shakespeare, Saturday morning #shakespeare #cats #catsofinstagram #caturday

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Photo

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[DM] “What do you think are some overlooked demographic issues?”

At Demography Matters, I ask readers what they think are some overlooked demographic issues.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 3:58 am

[VIDEO] A drone flight through High Park, Toronto, in autumn

blogTO and Torontoist linked to a remarkable video, filmed by a drone travelling high about High Park.


Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 1:00 am

Posted in Photo, Toronto, Video

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[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • blogTO notes that graffiti artists around the world, including in Toronto, are promoting Justin Bieber’s new album.
  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly likes pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s book about flight.
  • Centauri Dreams notes one possibility for a Europa sample mission.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes simulations which suggest spiral arms in circumstellar disks point towards new planets.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the critical endangerment of mangrove forests, looks at the irregularly shaped core of Enceladus, and wonders about Russia’s military shipyards.
  • Geocurrents maps the exceptionally complicated religious mixture of northeastern South Asia.
  • Language Hat notes the complex use of language by Julien Green and his writing.
  • Marginal Revolution looks at China’s one-child policy.
  • Supernova Condensate shares most photos of Pluto.
  • Why I Love Toronto shares a list of haunted places in Toronto.
  • Window on Eurasia worries about the West stopping its support of Ukraine, and notes the ISIS war against Russia.
  • The Financial Times‘ The World blog notes the importance of turmoil in Moldova.