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.

[URBAN NOTE] “The man who dreams of old Mecca”

Al Jazeera’s Basma Atassi has a beautiful, image-heavy feature about a Saudi, Sami Angawi, who is doing his best to preserve the memory of old Mecca as a ruthless Saudi Arabian government is literally razing and completely rebuilding the Islamic metropolis.

Sami Angawi refuses to call Mecca a city, for his Mecca could never be transformed into a metropolis – no matter how deep the drills dig or how fierce the battle between the skyscrapers and the clouds.

Mecca is a “sanctuary,” he says. “It’s God’s house, the refuge of humans, the birthplace of Islam.” It is the sanctuary established by the archetype of the perfect Muslim, Prophet Abraham, he adds.

And for this impassioned, animated Saudi architect it is also the place of his roots and the object of his love. Angawi’s father was a Mutawef, a guide to pilgrims undertaking the spiritual journey of Hajj. As a boy, he would help him, sometimes carrying the pilgrims’ shoes to save them from being lost at the steps of the Grand Mosque.

Their home was located in Shaab Ali, the neighbourhood said to have been home to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam and a descendent of Prophet Abraham, in the 600s AD. He remembers it as an intimate but bustling neighbourhood that once housed one of Mecca’s busiest open markets, ‘Souq al-Leil’ (the Night market). Its narrow allyways smelled of rich incense and spices, he says.

But the Angawi family home was demolished during the 1950s, as the country’s ruling family, the Al Sauds, began to expand the Grand Mosque in order to increase the number of pilgrims it could accommodate. It is a programme of expansion that has continued ever since, transforming the area Angawi once knew as home.

In 2006, the architect stirred debate when he told a regional television channel that where once there had been historical sites – the Prophet Muhammad’s house and the oldest school of Islam, Dar al-Arkam – there were now roads and public facilities. “These places have always been known to the Meccans,” he says, adding: “And now I am trying to use old and modern maps to scientifically locate these historical sites.”

Written by Randy McDonald

October 30, 2015 at 8:56 pm

[LINK] “Is this the worst time in Canadian history for Conservatives?”

TVO’s Steve Paikin looks at the position of the Conservatives after last week’s federal election. They are weakened, badly, but they can still bounce back.

[O]f all the provincial and territorial legislatures in Canada, Conservatives are governing where approximately 1.7 million Canadians live — about five per cent of the population.

Federally, it was a clean sweep for the Liberals in Atlantic Canada — there are zero Conservative MPs left. In Quebec, just 12 of 78 seats are Conservative; in Ontario, just 33 out of 121; from Manitoba to British Columbia, it’s 54 Conservatives out of 104 seats, which sounds not bad, until you remember the Liberals are now the No. 1 party in B.C. and Manitoba, and have penetrated Fortress Calgary with two seats — the party’s first in the Alberta city since 1968.

So things seem hopeless, right?

Not so fast. Thirty years ago, there were no Liberal governments anywhere in Canada. None. The Liberals were out of power in Ottawa, and in every provincial legislature in the country. But in Ontario, the Liberals’ David Peterson became premier after the 1985 election and from there, the landscape changed. Eventually, what hurt Conservatives on Oct. 19 could be their salvation: that moment roughly once every decade where voters say “enough” to the party in power and give another party a new chance. And if the federal Conservatives choose wisely for their next leader, they could be back in the game sooner rather than later.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 30, 2015 at 8:53 pm

[LINK] “Putin Tests English Debt Law as Ukraine Feud Heads to London”

Bloomberg’s Natasha Doff notes a potentially very noteworthy legal battle in London, between Russia and Ukraine, over issues of international debt.

Russia and Ukraine are about to test the boundaries of sovereign-debt litigation in a dispute that could have far-reaching implications for government bailouts the world over.

The neighbors are vowing to fight each other in a London court over a $3 billion bond Vladimir Putin bought to reward his Ukrainian ally, Viktor Yanukovych, for rejecting closer trade ties with the European Union two years ago. That move fueled the protests in Kiev that led to Yanukovych’s ouster, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and an insurgency that’s killed 8,000 people.

Ukraine’s government, on life support from the International Monetary Fund, gave Russia until Thursday to agree to the same writedown and extension that Franklin Templeton, which manages the largest U.S. overseas bond fund, and other creditors accepted this month. Russia has refused to negotiate and is shopping for a law firm to file suit as soon as Ukraine makes good on its threat to default when the bond comes due Dec. 20.

“This issue will go to court, there’s no other way around it,” said Christopher Granville, a former U.K. diplomat in Moscow who runs Trusted Sources research group in London. “There’s no way Russia will remain under financial sanctions from the U.S. government and accept the same terms as Franklin Templeton.”

Written by Randy McDonald

October 30, 2015 at 8:51 pm