The Nose Knows

Most people are familiar with drug or bomb sniffing dogs as well as dogs that can detect cancers in people. Generally when it comes to scent detection it seems that dogs have the market cornered. New research recently published by the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science explains that our feline companions abilities are nothing to sniff at and, they may be just as helpful as dogs or better at disease detection in humans and search and rescue.

The average cat has about 200 million scent receptors while most dog breeds have much less. The exception is the Bloodhound which has been bred specifically to have a powerful senses of smell and comes in at about 300 million scent receptors or, the Beagle and the German Shepard which have about 225 million. Our four-legged friends sense of smell is very impressive when you compare it to humans who only have about 5 million olfactory cells.

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Cats are discriminating super sniffers using their sense of smell to communicate and also mark territory – Image – AllCat.net

So who has a better sense of smell? The ‘dogs’ vs ‘cats’ debate will likely continue, but it is generally acknowledged by researchers that cats will win out in the best sense of smell category. What makes cats good candidates and better than dogs for helping to sniff out disease or find missing people? Simply, the nose knows how to better discriminate between smells.

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When a cat grimaces or shows the ‘Flehmen’ response they  are taking in and analyzing scents via the vomeronasal organ. Image – Maxhouse.com

Out of the three families of receptor proteins in a cats vomeronasal or Jacobson organ only one has been studied. They are known as V1Rs, and it is believed that the “number of V1R receptor gene variants is correlated with the ability to discriminate between chemical stimuli. Research shows that tigers have 21 gene variants and domestic cats have 30, compared to the 9 functioning V1Rs that dogs have, which would indicate that some felids are able to discriminate between a great variety of chemical stimuli.” Additional research will be required on the V1Rs, and eventually the other receptor proteins V2Rs and FPRs, to find out the extent to which cats can discriminate between scents.

The basis of these finding could mean there is great potential for cats to be used in scent based working roles where dogs may not be ideal either due to size or environment. It would also benefit cats directly by providing humans with a better understanding of how to improve their welfare or implement better enrichment for them at home or in animal shelters.

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 Feliway™ the first synthetically produced pheromone used to help calm and reduce anxiety in cats comes in a spray or diffuser form. It is one way scent is already helping cats. Image – Daily Mail

There have already been a number of documented cases of cats detecting cancer in their owners and also sniffing it out in other animals. I had this experience with one of my own cats when one suddenly started sniffing around the bottom of our other cat who was diagnosed with a tumor in his colon a week later.

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Researchers say that these abilities are underused in cats but they may be better alternatives for medical scent detection or olfactory assistance animals for patients who are uncomfortable with dogs or rats. However, anyone who is owned by a cat knows, that just like dogs, they each have individual personalities which means that not all of them will be gifted with the abilities or desire to do search and sniff work. This leaves us with a final question that is probably on the minds of many as they read this. Can cats be trained? The answer is yes, but it will take patience, positive reinforcement and some really enticing food rewards.

The Science of Spots

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories ‘How the leopard got it spots’ tells us that the feline had them painted on so it could blend into the forest ‘full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows’. While we know that this is not true, he was close in his assumption in that the coat pattern is reflective of the cats primary environment – cats that hunt in open areas and are active mainly during the day, like lions, tend to have plain coats. Ones that dwell and hunt from trees, forested areas or at night, like leopards or jaguars, tend to have dappled, spotted coats, or in the case of tigers stripy coats.

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Connect the spots – Image – M-H JeevesChemistry World

It is known that coat and colors patterns like the leopards evolved for camouflage and, William Allen a researcher at the University of Bristol reinforced this theory after completing a study of coat pattern images from 37 different types of wild cats. The data from the images along with “information concerning the size of each species, its habitat, characteristic behaviors and more, was then plugged into a mathematical model of pattern development. ” It was determined that spots were most common in species that spend greater amounts of time moving in trees, and in those that are active at lower light levels.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – It’s all about genetics. Every leopard has a different pattern – female South Luangwa NP, Zambia

Beside environment, there are likely more factors involved which influence the coat patterns of wild cats as they don’t always exactly mirror the animals surroundings. A few anomalies include the cheetah, which prefer open habitats but have retained their spots, this is thought to be the case because they rely mostly on speed, as opposed to camouflage, for hunting. The overall consensus is that coat patterns seem to have evolved to correspond to environments as well as how the wild cats behave within their specific environments.

Allen told BBC News that “When you place cat patterning over the evolutionary tree of cats, you can see that patterning emerges and disappears very frequently within the cat family, which is kind of interesting – it suggests that perhaps particular genetic mechanisms can solve very different appearances of cats.”

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Image ©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Clever cats at home in trees and perfectly camouflaged in low, shady light – Male Leopard South Luangwa NP, Zambia

The leopards beautiful spots are more than skin deep and the mechanism responsible may have a lot to do with chemistry. Alan Turing a mathematician and founder of computer sciences, proposed that chemistry had a role in forming patterns like those on a leopards coat. In Turings only published paper on chemistry, he put forth a set of equations which attempted to explain the patterns seen on leopards. The elements in this process contained and ‘activator’ whose presence caused cells to produce pigmented black hairs and, an ‘inhibitor’ that would cause cells to create white hairs. If they were strongly different it would enable a pattern to grow. Turing was able to demonstrate mathematically that these “simple components could account for a wide range of patterns and, a subtle tweaking of the parameters could alter the pattern to create spots, stripes, swirls, splodges or other markings.”

Much later on Turing’s theory would be used by biologists to support the hypothesis about other patterned animals. Chemists would eventually recreate an example of Turing’s pattern in a lab using a gel which developed a pattern of “yellow dots on a blue background”. It is now acknowledged that the science of spots has turned out to be more complicated than first presented and researchers admit that it does not fully solve the riddle of how the leopard got its spots, even though the theory is still considered a major contributor to determining how patterns form.

For more on the science of spots I highly recommend taking a listen to the BBC Radio 4 Just So Science episode which talks about the science and math behind the patterns and reading Plus Magazine’s Some Just So Stories of animal patterning.

When The Vikings Came

Shrouded in myth, the Vikings have been regarded as both explorers and warriors but, much of what we know about them has changed including the role they played in helping  our four-legged feline friends make their way around the world.

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Recent studies into ancient cat DNA has revealed that domestic cats hitched a ride on Viking boats  (Photo: Shutterstock) Image ScienceNordic

Researchers actually know very little about how cats were ‘domesticated’ so the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA presented this past September in the UK is a big first step towards understanding how our beloved house cats came to be. Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, and her colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats that lived between about 15,000 years ago and the eighteenth century AD, from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The first wave of cat expansion is something that most are familiar with – wild cats from the Middle East moved with early farming communities to the fertile Eastern Mediterranean. The cats were attracted by the rodents, who were attracted by the grains being stored by the farmers, and humans seeing the benefits they provided decided to keep the cats around. The discovery of a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus containing a cat buried with a human, suggests that the connection between felines and humans go as far back as 12,000 years.

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(Upper right) A human skeleton in Cyprus in a 9,500-year-old grave. Inches away, a cat was carefully buried, as seen in the lower section of the image.  Image – NBC News

During the second wave of expansion thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt (It is generally thought that Ancient Egyptians tamed wild cats about 6,000 years ago) quickly spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. “A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time.” It is very likely that sea-faring people like the Vikings kept cats on board their boats to help keep the rodent population down said researchers, who also discovered cat remains, with the same maternal DNA lineage present in the Egyptian cat mummies, at a Viking site in northern Germany dating to between the eighth and eleventh century AD.

Upon seeing the results of the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA at the conference, Population Geneticist Pontus Skoglund from Harvard Medical School told Nature that he “didn’t even know there were Viking cats.” However, according to conservator Kristian Gregersen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Vikings most certainly had domestic cats and that “people commonly wore cat skins by the late Viking Age.”

Interestingly this evidence seems to support the theory that two very popular and robust breeds the Maine Coon and the Norwegian Forest Cat, could have been brought to America and elsewhere by the Vikings. If you are wondering what that journey may have looked like be sure to click on the link or image below to check out this awesome, we wish it were real, flash-video by Joel Veitch.

VIKING KITTENS – by Joel

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Hair of The Cat

Studying wildlife is no easy task and ensuring it is done in the most non-invasive way can also be a challenge. When researchers wish to gather certain information about a species without actually capturing, and possibly harming, an animal they will often use camera-traps to take images or video of an animal. The traps are placed in predetermined areas or corridors where the species is known to frequent and are kept well hidden to reduce the impact on wildlife and chances of theft by humans.

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Puma – taken by camera trap in the Peruvian Amazon – Image Wildlife Photographer Jeff Cremer – Gizmodo

Along with gathering valuable information about use of habitat, social behaviors, and what they eat, camera traps can also help provide a visual health assessment of an animal. In some cases the images caught of rare, elusive, shy, and nocturnal felines can prove to be quit beautiful.

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Ocelot- take by camera trap in the Peruvian Amazon – Image Jeff Cremer – Gizmodo

While camera trap have proven useful they cannot collect physical samples, which are often required for research, and that is why scientists sometime rely on scented hair-traps to collect DNA, determine what the animals habitat ranges are and learn about genetic diversity. The traps have been in use since the 1990’s, mainly in cooler climates, and have been gaining popularity as a way to sample without stressing wildlife. Peninsular Malaysia is the latest place to employ this non-invasive method which is aimed at gathering population data from some it’s most endangered carnivores including the Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Golden Cat (Pardofelis temminckii), Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and the Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata).

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An example of a scent-baited hair traps created to target Felids. The CD was added to help visually attract the animals. – Image Mongabay

The use of scented hair-traps would allow researchers to obtain hair from a wild animal when they touch, or in the case of felines, rub up against the trap which is on a tree.  To enhance the chance of obtaining samples appealing odors, specially created fatty acids or men’s cologne, were used to entice animals to the traps which were set up in two main wildlife corridors. After 764 nights they discovered (via camera traps that were used to monitor the project) that at least one male Malayan Tiger and one male Clouded Leopard had rubbed against a trap.

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Male tiger ‘cheek rubbing’ on one of the hair traps in the study. – Image Mongabay

Scientists where later able to collect the hair of the cat, in the case the Tiger. The Clouded Leopard did rub the spot on the tree where the scent had been but elephants, another obstacle to the study, had already removed the trap. It was also discovered that the CD may have been a deterrent to a few of the felines, as one was seen running away from it, proving that not all cats like shiny things.

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Leopard Cat one of the 6 species of felids targeted for hair-traps – Image Mongabay

From this study scientists determined that for now at least, scented hair-traps in Peninsular Malaysian need improving, either by making the scents stronger or by moving locations of the traps. More work will be required to determine the potential of this non-invasive method and if it will benefit studying endangered felids in tropical forests.

Big Cat and the Spotted Skunk

Proof that even the big predators, carnivores like Mountain Lions, can be chased off their kills by smaller animals. Watch a tiny Spotted Skunk temporarily send this big cat packing right at about the 4:15 mark.

This is a supplementary video for an article published in The Canadian Field-Naturalist and was taken with a motion-triggered camera.

“Encounter competition occurs frequently over food resources and may include kleptoparasitism, where scavengers usurp prey killed by carnivores. Scavenging may have important adverse effects on carnivores and may result in higher than expected kill rates by predators. We placed a camera trap on a Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) carcass killed by a Cougar (Puma concolor) in California. We then documented a series of encounters in which a Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis) temporally usurped the carcass from the Cougar, and also successfully defended the carcass when the Cougar returned and attempted to feed. The Spotted Skunk was about 1% of the mass of the Cougar, and this video documents the largest published size differential of a mammalian species engaging in successful encounter competition.”