Guest Videos: Keep on Chuffin’

This is my favorite video out of all the ones I’ve looked at thus far in researching my book (due out this fall/winter) on the cat family:

He’s a very good chuffer.

Actually, there are now two species of clouded leopard recognized – one on mainland Asia and the recently discovered Sunda clouded leopard.

I don’t know which species that is in the video.

If you’re curious why the presenter said “my tigers,” check this out:

Here is a little more information about tigers from the research group associated with the IUCN, the organization that publishes the Red List of endangered species.


Featured image:
Tiger cub, by Steve Wilson. CC BY 2.0.


How Lions Roar

In what must have been one of the simplest and most enjoyable lab experiments ever, researchers found that house cats purr at a frequency of around 25 Hertz (25 times per second). They can keep purring for up to two hours.

To appreciate how amazing that is, imagine yourself humming the same note, without changing pitch as you breathe in and out, for two hours.

The big cats can’t do it, either, though they’re certainly equipped to make a lot of noise. This is why zoologists divided the cat family up into “roaring” and “purring” cats for most of the twentieth century.

It wasn’t a perfect system – some leopard-sized cats, for instance, like the cheetah, can purr – but feline anatomy seemed to back it up. The hyoid bone and some related neck structures are arranged differently in big cats and small cats. It seemed clear that this somehow allowed big cats to roar and smaller cats to purr.

However, more research has shown that muscles and vocal cords are probably involved, not the hyoid bone and its supports.

Small cats twitch a muscle – the vocalis muscle – in their neck. This triggers nearby vocal cords to vibrate, causing a purr. Big cats have the same muscle and the same vocal cords, but their cords are big enough to actually slow down the twitching muscle.

This is why you’ll never hear a lion purr.

Those vocal cords still vibrate, though at a much lower frequency. The rest of the big cat’s vocal tract is also perfectly shaped to deepen the vibrations into one of the most awesome sounds in nature.

Yes, that’s in a zoo, but I like the way this lion ignores the crowd after doing his thing. He is truly above it all.


Featured image: Steffen Wienberg at Pixabay


Sources:

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N.  2010.  Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Citizen Scientists, Cats, and Computers

All cats, big and small, like to keep secrets. It is our task as cat lovers to learn some of those secrets so we can make life even better for these beauties.

The cats don’t make it easy for us. So we fool them.

Today, technology like camera traps and GPS tracking collars collect a lot of data about unsuspecting domestic and wild cats.

Then we laypeople help the experts use these tools to learn more about cats.

Here are a couple examples of citizen science in action.

Cat Tracker

An outdoor cat usually just walks out the door, comes back many hours or days later, and tells no one what it did or where it went.

You’re probably curious about that. So are scientists who want to better understand the social behavior of domestic cats.

They also want to know what effect house cats have on the local wildlife.

You can help their research along, if you live in North Carolina and have an outdoor cat that you can harness (no leash required)

People at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and at North Carolina State University want to enroll a thousand local cats in their Cat Tracker program. As of 2014, they just had forty. (Cooper)

Each cat in the program wears a GPS harness for nine days. You then use your computer to upload that GPS information into the same database that many conservationists around the world use to track zebra and other wildlife.

You do have to pay the equipment cost – currently $62 at Amazon, per the SciStarter Cat Tracker website.

Instead (or in addition), you can fill out a Cat Tracker survey about your cat’s personality and/or send litter box samples to the program.

Would you rather hunt big cats at home with your computer monitor? The conservation organization Panthera has you covered.

Camera CATalogue

Zooniverse is another online citizen science platform like SciStarter. They’re host to Camera CATalogue, a collection of tens of thousands of wildlife images that Panthera and some other international organizations need identified.

Panthera has developed special cameras – called PantheraCams, of course – that take very high quality images of whatever wildlife passes by.

Some of the captures are works of art.

Most just show animals walking around, and some are blank. But it’s not boring.

People who have tried Camera CATalogue say it’s addictive. You never know what you’ll see next! (Braun)

There are about eighty PantheraCams out there, and only about a tenth of the images have made it online (Panthera), so this program is going to be around as long as they can keep it funded.

Europe and Latin America

Cat-related citizen science projects exist in non-English-speaking countries, too,.

For instance, there are ongoing studies of house cats in France.

Proposals have also been made for a study of endangered Mexican jaguars.

All of these projects help scientists directly, but there are indirect benefits, too.

Owners can better protect both their cats and the other neighborhood animals if they know where their pet goes after it leaves the house.

And the more interactions people have with wildlife – even when it’s only through images – the more inclined those will be to heed information about endangered species.

Finally, there are international awards for the best camera-trap images:


Featured image: Bobcats in New Mexico. J. N. Stuart. CC BY 2.0.


Sources:

Braun, D. M. August 8, 2016. Camera CATalogue: Help cat conservation without going to Africa. National Geographic, Cat Watch. https://voices.nationalgeographic.org/2016/08/08/camera-catalogue-help-cat-conservation-without-going-to-africa/ Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Panthera, Camera CATalog. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/panthera-research/camera-catalogue/about/research
Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Cooper, C. July 25, 2014. The nine simultaneous lives of cats: Cat Tracker. Discovery Magazine. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/citizen-science-salon/2014/07/25/cat-tracker/ Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Vergara-Huerta, J. August 18, 2017. Impulsan en Sinaloa programa de Ciencia Ciudadana para salvar el Jaguar. Tercera Vía. http://terceravia.mx/2017/08/impulsan-programa-ciencia-ciudadana-proteger-al-jaguar/ Last accessed September 18, 2017, machine translated into English.

When Is A Lion Not A Lion?

When its fossils might be those of another big cat.

This is the case with Panthera atrox.

Paleontologists used to call this enormous ice-age predator an American lion, and recent genetic studies do link Atrox to modern lions. (Barnett and others; Switek)

However, some experts disagree, saying that Atrox was either a jaguar or unique – a separate species. (Christiansen and Harris; Sues)

Why does it matter today?

Because, if you take out Atrox, the historical range of modern lions shrinks considerably. And that makes a huge difference to conservationists who are trying to protect this endangered species.

During the ice ages, Panthera atrox (on the right in the image above) used to roam what are now the US and Mexico. (Barnett and others) At almost 800 pounds, it was one of the few carnivores at La Brea’s asphalt pits that could scare Smilodon fatalis (on the left) away from a kill (Antón), even if Atrox didn’t have saberteeth.

That lack of a notable feature like saberteeth has made things very difficult for paleontologists trying to identify this animal correctly.

Cats all look pretty much alike under the skin. In addition, there are always fewer carnivores than plant eaters, and cats tend to die in places that don’t preserve fossils very well. (Turner and Antón)

So there is very little field evidence to study.

Ever since 1853, when fragmented fossils of an ice-age big cat were first called “Atrox” (meaning “cruel”), this animal has been classified variously as a lion or a jaguar. (Sues; Switek)

Good arguments were made on both sides. It’s just really, really hard to classify cat fossils.

With Atrox, it doesn’t help that lions and jaguars (and leopards) belong to the same natural evolutionary group, called a clade (Hemmer), and once shared a common ancestor. (O’Brien and Johnson)

Then scientists discovered that the La Brea asphalt pits near Los Angeles are carnivore traps. Yay!

Since then, eighty almost complete Atrox individuals have been excavated and studied. Some experts, including the curator of the Page Museum at La Brea, have looked at these fossils very closely. They believe that Atrox can’t be connected to any modern species. (Christiansen and Harris; Switek).

Others have managed to extract some Atrox DNA. They report that it’s close to modern lion DNA. (Barnett and others; Switek)

So which do you believe: what you can see or what the lab tells you?

It’s hard to answer that question when there aren’t any living Atrox cats around.

For laypeople, DNA techniques are akin to magic and therefore can’t be judged. It’s also very impressive to us that many paleontologists accept the Atrox DNA results.

But getting good results from ancient DNA is very challenging, even when there is no complicating modern human DNA to worry about. (Rizzi and others)

In the long run, it’s going to take more research to settle this question beyond doubt.

Unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess whether there will still be modern lions around at that point.


Featured image: Atrox (right) and Smilodon (left) at the La Brea asphalt pits museum, by Joe Mabel. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Sources:

Antón, M. 2013. Sabertooth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Barnett, R.; Shapiro, B.; Barnes, I.; Ho, S.; and others. 2009. Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in geneic diversity. Molecular Ecology. 18(8):1668-1677.

Christiansen, P., and Harris, J. 2009. Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: Implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29(3): 934-945.

Hemmer, H.; Kahlke, R-D.; and Vekua, A. K. 2001. The jaguar – Panthera onca gombaszoegensis (Kretzoi, 1938) (Carnivora: Felidae) in the late Lower Pleistocene of Akhalkalaki (South Georgia; Transcaucasia) and its evolutionary and ecological significance. Geobios. 34(4):475-486.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Rizzi, E.; Lari, M.; Gigli, E.; De Bellis, G.; and Caramelli, D. 2012. Ancient DNA studies: new perspectives on old samples. Genetics Selection Evolution. 44:21. https://gsejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1297-9686-44-21 Last accessed September 5, 2017.

Sues, H-D. 2010. “The ‘American lion’ is not a lion.” National Geographic Society. https://voices.nationalgeographic.org/2010/05/08/the_american_lion_is_not_a_lio/ Last accessed September 5, 2017.

Switek, B. 2011. American lion, or giant jaguar? In search of Panthera atrox. https://www.wired.com/2011/10/american-lion-or-giant-jaguar-in-search-of-panthera-atrox/ Accessed August 21, 2017.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dangerous Cats


Fact: Lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars are responsible for most attacks on human beings.


In the last couple of years there have been some high-profile big-cat attacks in Beijing and Nairobi.

These grisly events probably got worldwide attention because they were unusual – big cats and major cities are generally two separate news beats. Also, the woman who survived the Beijing tiger attack has filed a lawsuit for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, big-cat attacks are just as grisly elsewhere – but much more common.

One such danger zone is in India near the Nepal border, where electricity isn’t available at night.

Overnight, wolves and leopards move in to carry off the children – a hundred were lost to wolves between 2001 and 2003, and six to leopards during a six-month period in 2013-2014. (Srivastava)

Many readers just checked on their kids.

You can relax some, if you live in Europe or almost anywhere in North America. The only common “big” cat here is the cougar, and it is very good at avoiding us.

All cats prefer natural prey. The problems usually start from a surprise encounter; or when prey numbers drop; or when the cat(s) are injured or displaced from their normal range. (Loveridge and others)

As for cougars, in the US and Canada 10 people have died in a total of 73 attacks between 1991 and 2003. (Chester)

That’s ten fatalities and seventy-three attacks too many, but dogs kill more people than that each year. And, globally, you’re more likely to die in a traffic accident than in a big-cat attack. (Chester; Loveridge and others)

This isn’t much comfort to people in some parts of lion/tiger/leopard country.

Sometimes the maneater may be just one problem animal.  For example, a major Bollywood filming site near Mumbai is closed right now because a leopard recently began attacking people in the area. (Chatterjee)

It can also be a situational thing.

In Tanzania, where lions have killed hundreds of people and injured hundreds more, their typical prey – hoofed plant eaters – are in decline. The lions have shifted over to bush pigs, which often come in close to human settlements. (Loveridge and others)

The rest is tragedy.

The highest risk of an attack in Tanzania is during the harvest, but you don’t go out at night around full moon time, either. Research does show that lions use moonlight to hunt. (Packer and others, 2005, 2011).

Are big cats stalking us or is it a surprise on both sides?

Accidental encounters probably account for many big-cat attacks, but in the Sundarbans, at least, some Bengal tigers are stalkers. Tigers killed 294 Indians there between 1984 and 2001. Another 79 people died in the Bangladesh Sundarbans between 2002 and 2007. (Loveridge and others)

Tigers and other big cats are at risk of extinction today. Yet in many places, not just the Sundarbans, it’s very hard to manage things so that both cats and people can live and thrive.

Somehow, for everybody’s sake, we must find a way to do exactly that.


Featured image: Lioness stalking prey on Kenya’s Maasai Mara, by Lip Kee. CC BY-SA 2.0.


Sources:
Chatterjee, B. Leopard attacks in Mumbai: Forest department imposes indefinite ban on shooting in Film City. Hindustan Times. August 9, 2017, 19:21 IST. http://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/leopard-attacks-in-mumbai-forest-department-imposes-indefinite-ban-on-shooting-in-film-city/story-TPwYOPvj7f6FT4i9mCY0xN.html Last accessed September 3, 2017.

Chester, T. 2006. Mountain lion attacks on people in the U.S.A. and Canada. http://www.tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks.html#stats Last accessed August 10, 2017.

Loveridge, A. J.; Wang, S. W.; Frank, L. G.; and Seidensticker, J. 2010. People and wild felids: conservation of cats and management of conflicts, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 161-195. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murphy, T., and Macdonald, D. W. 2010. Pumas and people: lessons in the landscape of tolerance from a widely distributed felid, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 431-451. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Packer, C.; Ikanda, D.; Kissui, B.; andKushnir, H. 2005. Conservation biology: lion attacks on humans in Tanzania. Nature. 436(7053):927-928. Abstract only.

Packer, D.; Swanson, A.; Ikanda, D.; and Kushnir, H. 2011. Fear of darkness, the full moon, and the nocturnal ecology of African lions. PLoS ONE. 6(7):e22285.

Srivastava, N. April 3, 2014. Why leopard attacks have become an election issue in India. BBC Hindi, Uttar Pradesh. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-26815191 Last accessed September 3, 2017.

Under Our Care: A Flooded Zoo in Texas

This is what the Texas Zoo, located in Victoria, Texas, about 70 miles north of Rockport, usually looks like:

Per Victoria’s Wikipedia page, the zoo houses about 200 animals in a natural setting.

It’s probably a good place to bring the kids on a a muggy southeast Texas summer day, since it’s built on an island in the Guadalupe River and therefore fairly cool.

But there are some drawbacks to such a location.

Here is what the Texas Zoo looked like this morning, September 2 – about an hour ago:


In case that walkthrough video on the zoo’s Facebook page didn’t embed correctly in this WordPress post (did my best, but I’m a newbie!), rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded the Guadalupe River, which then covered the Texas Zoo to a depth of almost five feet.

Four Texas Zoo employees rode out the storm and the flooding with the animals (Aldaco), including Mr. Cash, the tall black guy in both videos above.

Most of the smaller animals, including an ocelot, were evacuated on August 31st (Aldaco); other zoos are keeping those critters until they can safely be returned.

The big cats and some bear cubs had to stay, but zoo personnel moved them to night cages, which are higher. (Aldaco) The flood water did not reach them.

Those people came through okay.  The only reported casualties thus far are some hogs and a few small animals. (Aldaco)

SeaWorld and other area zoos have sent in trained animal handlers and other aid, and reconstruction teams are on the way. A GoFundMe page is also up. (Aldaco; CBSDFW, Uhler)

Employees also stayed with the animals at the Houston Zoo, including the CEO, who blogged on August 29 that the Houston Zoo was “an island of relative normalcy in an ocean of crisis.”

It reopened yesterday, September 1st, with a $5 admission special.

The Texas Zoo reopening will take a little longer.

 


Featured image: Screenshot from the “before” video above.


Aldaco, A. “Texas Zoo evacuates animals (w/video).” Victoria Advocate, August 31, 2017, 10:30 p.m. https://www.victoriaadvocate.com/news/2017/aug/31/texas-zoo-evacuates-animals/ Last accessed September 1, 2017.

CBSDFW.com. “Fort Worth zoo employees head out to rescue Victoria zoo workers.” August 31, 2017, 7:54 a.m. http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2017/08/31/fort-worth-zoo-employees-head-out-to-rescue-victoria-zoo-workers/ Last accessed September 2, 2017.

Uhler, T. “Fort Worth Zoo sends boats, TVs, staffers to hurricane zone.” Star Telegram, August 31, 2017, 11:59 a.m.
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article170460227.html Last accessed September 1, 2017.

Two Big-Cat Attacks


Fact: Big cats are dangerous.


This seems pretty self-evident. Yet, last summer, visitors to a drive-through zoo still got out of their car near an uncaged tiger, with predictable results.

This summer, a Kenyan man illegally grazed his herd in Nairobi National Park at night – prime lion activity time. They found what little was left of him the next morning.

But these incidents aren’t so simple when you look at them more closely.

For one thing, each happened in a big city – Beijing and Nairobi, respectively.

Yes, Nairobi National Park is the only wildlife park in the world located inside a nation’s capital. And suburbs are encroaching on it, inch by inch.

The victim of the Nairobi Park attack was an 18-year-old Maasai man. According to news reports, he was there because a bad drought is happening.  In addition, growth of urban areas and increasing private ownership are making it hard for the Maasai to find good grazing lands.

The presence of the park offers local herdsmen a chance to keep their precious stock alive.

With survival at stake, taking the risk of using the park’s grasslands at night, when The Man can’t see you, makes some sense.

Unfortunately, the lions can see you.

And the same habitat encroachment and drought conditions that are messing up the Maasai’s world are depleting their natural prey animals, too.

Now enough of the park’s lions are apparently hungry enough to make the costs of a night trip to Nairobi National Park very high for some local herdsmen.

In China, the July 2016 trouble in Beijing’s Badaling Wildlife World began when a woman got carsick.

Have you ever felt so nauseous that you just had to leave some confining place and get a lungful of good air? Now suppose you were in a moving car with a bunch of other people, the windows rolled up.

Of course you made them stop the car.

And you could see a few animals out there, through the glass, looking just like they do on TV; and it’s a park. No big deal.  They’re all used to humans, and this will only take a minute. Just one quick breath . . .

Perhaps Zhao Jing turned her back on the tiger, unaware (as most of us are) that this is a trigger.

Anyway, the cat, almost as big as the young woman, dragged her into the bushes. Her mother then entered the fray and rescued her seriously injured daughter, sustaining injuries that she later died from. The daughter eventually healed, physically.

Besides post-traumatic stress, she must also deal with heavy criticism from the Chinese internet as well as the knowledge that a CCTV video of the entire attack is now in circulation.

The entire world can replay Zhao Jing’s worst nightmare over and over again, forever.  There will never be closure.

These two attacks are a little unusual from lion and tiger attacks that have killed hundreds of people in recent decades (see Loveridge and others; Packer and others), but all big cats are dangerous.

They’re just cats, the same as little Fluffy, but they’re big – big enough to take us down.

And they know it.

Well, some of them know it.


Featured image:  Tambako the Jaguar.  CC-BY-ND 2.0


Sources:
Loveridge, A. J.; Wang, S. W.; Frank, L. G.; and Seidensticker, J. 2010. People and wilfe felids: conservation of cats and management of conflicts, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 161-195. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Packer, C.; Ikanda, D.; Kissui, B.; andKushnir, H. 2005. Conservation biology: lion attacks on humans in Tanzania. Nature. 436(7053):927-928. Abstract only.

 

The Living Bridge


Fact: A living bridge of almost thirty different wild cats connects house cats with the big cats.


Everybody – even a confirmed cat hater – recognizes a domestic cat. Most of us also know and love (from a safe distance) lions, tigers, and their close relatives.

What’s really hard is putting the two together – getting a feel for the family relationship between house cats and the big cats.

Our stereotypes get in the way. Fluffy isn’t the perfect carnivore! (Yes, it is.)  Tigers can’t be cute as well as dangerous. (Sure, they’re adorable!)

Here’s an easy way to see that deep connection between big cats and our pet.

According to geneticists (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds; O’Brien and Johnson):

  • Big cats evolved first, more than 10 million years ago. The experts disagree on the exact date but they’re pretty sure that lions, leopards, and jaguars developed in a group, while tigers and snow leopards developed in another group.
  • House cats and their wildcat (one word) ancestors came late to the party – around 400 Ka (thousand years ago), according to some experts. (Yamaguchi and others)
  • Every other wild cat (two words) on Earth today – almost thirty separate groups – originated between between those two extremes.

That’s the living bridge of wild cats that connects Fluffy with Leo and his close relatives.

There are five lineages of wild cats between the domestic cat and big cat lineages (O’Brien and Johnson).

Each line has several different kinds of cat, just as there are lions, tigers, and others in the big-cat lineage.

You might not have heard of all of these cats, but as this web site develops, you will be able to pull down a menu for each lineage and check out facts about each one, in plain English.

In the meantime, here is how it looks in “science speak” (the colored part):

journal.pone.0039752.g001-837x572

“Panthera” and “Neofelis” are big-cat scientific names. Anything “Felis” is part of the domestic-cat lineage.


Images:
Featured image: FlashBuddy at Pixabay. Public domain.

“Cat science” image: Manabu Sakamoto and Marcello Ruta. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0039752.g001  Open access per CC BY 4.0  Last accessed August 29, 2017.


Sources:

Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.