The cheetah’s spots look like the work of a skilled artist, who has delicately dabbed dots of ink upon the animal’s coat. By contrast, the king cheetah – a rare breed from southern Africa – looks like the same artist had a bad day and knocked the whole ink pot over. With thick stripes running down its back, and disorderly blotches over the rest of its body, the king cheetah looks so unusual that it was originally considered a separate species. Its true nature as a mutant breed was finally confirmed in 1981 when two captive spotted females each gave birth to a king.
Two teams of scientists, led by Greg Barsh from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Stanford University, and Stephen O’Brien from the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research have discovered the gene behind the king cheetah’s ink-stains. And it’s the same gene that turns a mackerel-striped tabby cat into a blotched “classic” one.
Back in 2010, Eduardo Eizirik, one of O’Brien’s team, found a small region of DNA that seemed to control the different markings in mackerel and blotched tabbies. But, we only have a rough draft of the cat genome, they couldn’t identify any specific genes within the area. The study caught the attention of Barsh, who had long been interested in understanding how cats get their patterns, from tiger stripes to leopard rosettes. The two teams started working together.
Cats have been our companions for almost 10,000 years. They have been worshipped by Egyptians, killed (or not) by physicists, and captioned by geeks. And in all that time, no one has quite appreciated how impressively they drink. Using high-speed videos, Pedro Reis and Roman Stocker from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that lapping cats are masters of physics. Every flick of their tongues finely balances a pair of forces, at high speed, to draw a column of water into their thirsty jaws.
Drinking is more of a challenge for cats than for us. They have to drink from flat, horizontal bodies of water. Even with our hands tied, we could do that just by putting out mouth at the surface and sucking, but then we have large cheeks that can form a proper seal. Pigs, sheep and horses have the same ability, but cats and dogs do not. Their cheeks don’t extend far enough forward so they have to use a different technique: lapping.
Cat owners have watched their pets lap at water for thousands of years but when Stocker did so, his curiosity was piqued. “Three years ago, when I was watching my cat Cutta Cutta lap during breakfast, I realized there was an interesting biomechanics problem behind this simple action,” he says. The lapping motion is so fast that to fully appreciate it, you need a high-speed camera. Slow-motion films of Cutta Cutta revealed that a cat doesn’t actually scoop up its drink with its tongue in the way that a dog does. Its technique is more subtle.
While dogs can often be taught new tricks, cat-owners will be all too aware that it can be very difficult to persuade them to do something they don’t want to do. Eddie Izzard summed it up best in his legendary Pavlov’s cat sketch, where felines are quite capable of outfoxing (outcatting?) eminent Welsh-Russian psychologists. Real cats may be less devious, but only just – new research suggests that they are very skilled at getting their human owners to do their bidding.
When they want food, domestic cats will often purr in a strangely plaintive way that their owners find difficult to ignore. By analysing the structure of these calls, Karen McComb from the University of Sussex has found out why. On the surface, the “solicitation purrs” are based on the same low-pitched sounds that contented moggies make, but embedded within them is a high-pitched signal that sounds like a cry or a meow. It’s this hidden signal that makes the purr of a hungry cat so irresistible to humans.
McComb has a long history of research into animal communication and she has studied the calls of African elephants, red deer, lions and macaques. But it was her own cat, Pepo (pictured above), who provided the inspiration for this study.
“He consistently woke me up in the mornings with very insistent purring,” she said. “I wondered why this purring sounded so annoying and was so difficult to ignore. Talking with other cat owners, I found that some of them also had cats who showed strikingly similar behaviour. As I was an academic who actually worked on vocal communication [in mammals], I had the right background, tools and collaborators to tackle this question directly.”
If you wanted to turn a rat into a fearless critter, unfazed by cats or bigger rats, the best way would be to neutralise a small pair of tiny structures in its brain called the dorsal premammillary nuclei, orPMD. According to new research by Simone Motta at the University of Sao Paolo, these small regions, nestled within a rat’s hypothalamus, control its defensive instincts to both predators and other rats.
But not all neurons in the PMD are equal. It turns out that the structures are partitioned so that different bits respond to different threats. The front and side parts (the ventrolateral area) are concerned with threats from dominant and aggressive members of the same species. On the other hand, the rear and middle parts (the dorsomedial area) process the threats of cats and other predators. And both areas are distinct from other networks that deal with the fear of painful experiences, such as electric shocks.
This complexity is surprising. Until now, scientists have mostly studied the brain’s fear system by focusing on an area called the amydgala, which plays a role in processing memories of emotional reactions. And they have generally assumed that fearful responses are driven by the same networks of neurons, regardless of the threat’s nature.
There’s good reason to think that. Hesitating in the face of danger is a sure-fire way to lose one’s life, so animals respond in a limited number of instinctive ways when danger threatens. They freeze to avoid detection, flee to outrun the threat, or fight to confront it. These automatic “freeze, fight or flight” responses are used regardless of the nature of the threat. Rats, for example, behave in much the same way when they are menaced by cats or electrified floors alike, and actually find it very difficult to do anything else.
This limited repertoire of action convinced scientists that animals process different fears in the same way, relying on the same network of neurons to save their hides from any and all threats. Motta’s research shows that this idea is wrong, certainly for rats and probably for other mammals too. The brain’s fear system isn’t a one-size-fits-all toolkit; it has different compartments that respond specifically to different classes of threats.