Posts Tagged ‘science’
Slate‘s David Grimm reports on the debate on the extent to which cats are domesticated.
The other night, before my wife and I put our 2½-year-old twins to bed, she began reading them one of their favorite books, Where the Wild Things Are. Juliet, in Dalmatian pajamas, asked, “Mommy, where are the wild things?” My wife glanced over at our gray-and-white tabby curled up on a chair nearby. “Well,” she said, “Jasper’s a wild thing.” Juliet looked incredulous. “Jasper’s not a wild thing,” she said. “He’s a cat!”
The dispute is understandable. Though cats have lived with us for nearly 10,000 years and are the world’s most popular pet, experts disagree about whether they’re actually domestic animals. Our feline companions don’t really need us, after all: They can hunt for themselves, and they go feral without human contact. A scientific paper published last year uncovered some of the first genes responsible for domestication—all in the cat genome—yet still referred to cats as “semi-domesticated.” Other scientists vehemently disagree with that designation. “There’s no difference between a domesticated cat and a domesticated anything else,” says Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who has studied the domestication of pigs, dogs, and a variety of other animals. “Good luck trying to get a goat or a sheep to spend the night in your house.”
At the heart of the debate is the heart of our relationship with cats. Sure, they were gods in ancient Egypt, but ever since a paranoid pope linked them to witchcraft in the 13th century, felines have been vilified as evil, unpredictable, and untrustworthy—stereotypes that persist even in this age of the adorable Internet cat video. So the question must be asked: Are cats just like dogs but in slinkier form, eager and able to be part of the human family? Or is there something truly feral about them—something wild and unknowable that will forever keep them from blending into our tribe? Put another way, are cats with us or against us?
Even early legal scholars debated the question, as I discovered while writing Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs, which traces the journey of pets from wild animals to members of the family. In 1894, a Baltimore man was arrested for stealing his neighbor’s cat. But as the judge prepared to sentence him, Maryland’s attorney general stepped in. “A cat,” he declared, “is not legal property. … It is as much a wild animal, in a legal sense, as are its relatives—the tiger and the wild-cat.” The judge was forced to let the thief go. In the eyes of the law, a man who had stolen a cat had stolen nothing at all.
In the early 1900s, however, as cats became more popular household companions, the law changed its tune. At issue in a 1914 Maine state Supreme Court case was whether a man was legally justified in shooting his neighbor’s dog because it was chasing his cat. Under state law, the shooter pointed out, a person could kill a dog that was “worrying, wounding, or killing any domestic animal.” But did a cat fit that definition? After much deliberation, the court ruled that it did. “In no other animal has affection for the home been more strongly developed,” it decreed.
Live Science’s Tia Ghose reports on a study suggesting cats are less efficient predators than some have feared.
Cats have gotten a bad rap in recent years. The furry carnivores have been implicated in wildlife killings: Researchers reported in 2013 that American cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds, and more than 20 billion small mammals, each year. Most of those killings are tied to feral cats, which don’t have human owners, though kitty cams have revealed outdoor domestic cats are also partaking in the carnage, that study found.
To better understand Felis catus, Hess and his colleagues, along with hundreds of citizens in six Eastern states from Maryland to Tennessee, deployed critter cams in yards, urban parks, protected wild spaces and green corridors.
After analyzing millions of hours of footage, the team found that cats tended to stick to urban and suburban settings: They were 300 times more likely to pop up in residential yards than in parks.
In addition, cats were scarce in areas where coyotes roamed. The more coyotes that prowled an area, the fewer kitties ventured there, according to the study, which was published today (June 30) in the Journal of Mammalogy. The one exception was that coyotes were occasionally found in urban corridors that were connected to larger green spaces, said study co-author William McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia.
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The new findings, however, suggest coyotes play a positive role in keeping cats at bay in wilder spaces, McShea said. Coyotes are the “big kid on the block” and are aggressive toward cats, which may cause cats to stay off coyote turf, he added.
Fewer than 4,000 tigers roam across the Asian continent today, compared to about 100,000 a century ago. But researchers are proposing a new way to protect the big cats: redefine them.
The proposal, published this week in Science Advances, argues current taxonomy of the species is flawed, making global conservation efforts unnecessarily difficult.
There are up to nine commonly accepted subspecies of tigers in the world, three of which are extinct. But the scientists’ analysis, conducted over a course of several years, claims there are really only two tiger subspecies: one found on continental Asia and another from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali.
“It’s really hard to distinguish between tigers,” said Andreas Wilting, the study’s lead author from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. “There has been no comprehensive approach. The taxonomies are based on data from almost a hundred years ago.”
The study, described by its authors as “the most comprehensive analysis to date,” looked at the mitochondrial DNA, skulls, skin markings, habitat and prey of all nine tiger subspecies. It found a high degree of overlap in these traits between the continental tigers — spanning from Russia to Southeast Asia — and between the island-dwelling “Sunda” tigers.