October 29, 2012
As much as we might not like to admit it, humans make snap judgments based on appearances all the time. And that’s true even when it comes to cats. White Persians are snooty. Black cats are evil or unlucky. Some shelters even suspend adoptions of black cats and white cats around Halloween in fear of what misguided people might do with the kitties.
In a new study published in Anthrozoos, researchers from California State University and the New College of Florida set out to discover our hidden kitty biases with an Internet-based survey of nearly 200 people. They asked the participants to associate 10 personality terms (active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable) with five cat colors–orange, tri-colored (tortoiseshells and calico cats), white, black and bi-colored (white and anything else).
Some trends appeared in the data. Orange kitties were perceived as friendly and rated low in the aloof and shy categories. (They were also considered more trainable than were white cats, although the idea that anyone considers a cat trainable is kind of funny. Or am I betraying my own bias here?) Tri-colored cats rated high in aloofness and intolerance, and white cats were also considered aloof, as well as shy and calm. And bi-colored cats–which could have been any color, really, in the participants’ minds–were thought to be friendly. The data for black cats, however, was a bit muddier and no clear trends emerged.
Despite people’s perceptions that there are links between coat color and how a cat will behave, there is little hard evidence that such a connection is real. “But there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others,” Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.
That’s because when people are choosing a cat, they may make assumptions based on coat color about how that cat will behave in the home. But when they take the kitty home and he isn’t as friendly or cuddly or sedentary as they had hoped, the cat may be returned to the shelter. At least a million cats end up in shelters each year; many of them are euthanized.
And these biases have repercussions for cats of certain colors. A 2002 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, for example, found that black cats and brown cats were the least likely to be adopted. Dark cats were also more likely to euthanized. And despite there being little genetic evidence that the genes that guide the coloring and patterning on a cat’s coat also influence it’s behavior, the study found that people frequently believed that tortoiseshells had too much attitude (or “tortitude”), which may explain why they don’t get adopted quickly or get returned to the shelter.
But it’s difficult to cut through people’s biases. So shelters will have to work extra hard to educate prospective kitty adopters about cats and cat behavior. “You can’t judge a cat by its color,” Berkeley East Bay Humane Society cat coordinator Cathy Marden said in a statement. “If someone comes in to adopt, we encourage them to spend time with all the cats, because it’s the personality of that cat–not the color–that will let you know if the animal’s the right fit for you.”
And if a black cat crosses your path this week, don’t get frightened. He’s no more likely to be evil than the cat you have at home.
October 15, 2012
When I wrote about the marshmallow test several years ago, it seemed so simple:
A child was given a marshmallow and told he could either ring a bell to summon the researcher and get to eat the marshmallow right away or wait a few minutes until the researcher returned, at which time the child would be given two marshmallows. It’s a simple test of self control, but only about a third of kids that age will wait for the second marshmallow. What’s more interesting, though, is that success on that test correlates pretty well with success later in life. The children who can’t wait grow up to have lower S.A.T. scores, higher body mass indexes, problems with drugs and trouble paying attention.
The initial finding hasn’t been overturned, but a new study in the journal Cognition is adding a layer of complexity to the test with the finding that whether the child perceives the researcher as trustworthy matters.
“Our results definitely temper the popular perception that marshmallow-like tasks are very powerful diagnostics for self-control capacity,” Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
Kidd and her colleagues started their experiment by adding a step before giving their group of 28 three- to five-year-old children the marshmallow test: Similar to the marshmallow test, the children were given an art task, with a researching placing before a child either a well-worn set of crayons or a small sticker. The children were promised a better art supply (new crayons or better stickers) if they waited for the researcher to come back. With half of the children, though, the researcher didn’t follow up on that promise, telling the kid that better supplies were unavailable.
And then the researcher administered the marshmallow test.
Children who had been primed to believe that the researcher was reliable waited an average of 12 minutes before eating the marshmallow, but those in the “unreliable” group waited only three minutes. What’s more, nine out of 14 children in the “reliable” group were able to wait the full 15 minutes for the researcher to return, while only one kid in the unreliable group was able to wait that long.
“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay,” Kidd said. Self control isn’t so important, it seems, if you don’t think there’s anything worth controlling yourself for.
Kidd got interested in the test after volunteering at a homeless shelter. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” Kidd said. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’ ”
The study doesn’t invalidate the marshmallow test–willpower is still important–but it does mean that people shouldn’t look at kids who fail the test as being instantly doomed to failure. Instead, parents of kids who appear to lack self control might want to look more closely at why they would eat the marshmallow–is it because they can’t wait or because they can’t trust that the next marshmallow will appear?
September 20, 2012
Tabby may be a colloquial term for a female kitty, but it’s more properly the name for the common stripey pattern on a domestic cat’s coat. Those tabby markings come in two main varieties: proper vertical stripes of dark on a light background, known as the mackerel pattern, and a blotched variety consisting of less-organized, dark whorls. Now scientists from Stanford University and elsewhere have identified the gene that determines whether a tabby is mackerel or blotched and found that the same gene also can make a cheetah a king. The study appears in today’s issue of Science.
“We were motivated by a basic question: How do periodic patterns like stripes and spots in mammals arise?” study co-author Gregory Barsh, an investigator at HudsonAlpha and a Stanford geneticist, said in a press release. “Until now, there’s been no obvious biological explanation for cheetah spots or the stripes on tigers, zebras or even the ordinary house cat.”
Barsh and his colleagues examined DNA taken from feral kitties in Northern California that were captured, sterilized and released (a common practice employed to control the size of feral cat populations) and from tissue samples collected by the City of Huntsville Animal Services group. All the mackerel tabbies they studied had a normal version of a gene the researchers named Transmembrane Aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep) while all the blotched tabbies had a mutated form of the gene.
The Taqpep gene establishes the pattern of a cat’s coat while a kitty is still in the womb, likely by determining the level of expression of another gene–Endothelin3 (Edn3)–that drives the shade produced by a hair cell (lots of Edn3 results in darker hair). The form of the pattern is actually established out of a random interaction of chemicals that ends up producing something that looks non-random–British mathematician Alan Turing first proposed this theory in 1952, and it was later simulated in computer models and earlier this year scientists discovered the chemicals in question.
Still to be determined, though, is why some domestic cats don’t have any pattern at all despite the status of their Taqpep gene. (On a side note, blotched tabbies are sometimes called “classic” tabbies but not because they’re more common. The blotched pattern is a more recent mutation; the original wild ancestors of domestic kitties were mackerels similar to Old World wild cats of today.)
But domestic cats aren’t the only cats that can vary in coat pattern, of course. Most cheetahs, for example, are the common spotted variety, but a few rare cats are known as king cheetahs, and these sub-Saharan kitties have dark stripes running along their backs (see below). When the researchers examined skin and blood samples taken from captive and wild cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia, they found that not only did the cats have the same Taqpep gene as domestic kitties, but also the gene worked in a similar way on the wild cats’ coats. A normal Taqpep gene produced the regular spotted cats but a mutated Taqpep merged the spots into stripes, just as the gene had merged the tabby stripes into blotches.
Though scientists cannot yet explain how the zebra got its stripes, at least now they can explain how the king cheetah got his.
July 16, 2012
Last week, astronomers identified a fifth moon–named P5 for now–orbiting Pluto in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The moon is a mere 6 to 15 miles in diameter and orbits in a 58,000-mile-diameter circular orbit around the dwarf planet. “The [five] moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls,” said team lead Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute.
The discovery provides some ammunition for those upset at Pluto’s demotion from the planetary ranks. “If you are important enough to have acquired five satellites, you are a planet!” says Kevin Baines, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
1. It orbits the Sun.
2. It has has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape.
3. It has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
The discovery of P5, however, does have important implications for the New Horizons spacecraft headed towards Pluto and scheduled to rendezvous in July 2015. “The inventory of the Pluto system we’re taking now with Hubble will help the New Horizons team design a safer trajectory for the spacecraft,” said New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. There is real worry that New Horizons could be destroyed if it runs into even a small piece of debris as it zooms past Pluto at 30,000 miles per hour.
As for what P5 (and P4, discovered last year) will eventually be named, that’s still up in the air, although Showalter told New Scientist that after he had finished his search of the Hubble data and found all of Pluto’s moons he would suggest names in the Hades/underworld theme that gave us Charon, Hydra and Nix. I came up with a few options for moon names last year on this blog (Erberus, Styx and Hypnos–in our poll, our readers liked Styx best), but I think Showalter might be running out of options in his preferred theme and will have to do some real digging into classical history once he gets to P7 and beyond.
July 11, 2012
In 1961, a group of scientists set up a permanent camp on Possession Island, a bit of land located in the Crozet Archipelago, about halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica in the Indian Ocean. Their goal was a long-term study of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), and scientists have continued that study for more than 50 years, sometimes accompanied by a small number of tourists. The penguins appear to be habituated to the presence of humans, but a new study in BMC Ecology finds that even this limited human contact may be negatively affecting them.
A team of researchers from France and Switzerland compared 15 king penguins from the areas regularly disturbed by scientists and tourists with 18 birds that bred in an undisturbed area, recording the penguins’ heart rates (an indicator of stress) in response to three potential human stressors–loud noise, approaches by humans (similar to what would happen when a scientist or tourist would observe the birds) and capture (a rare but necessary technique used when studying the penguins).
With both loud noise and human approach, the penguins from the disturbed area were far less stressed than their counterparts from the undisturbed area. All the birds, however, found capture to be a stressful experience.
Is this evidence that the penguins from the regularly disturbed are habituated to humans? Maybe, say the researchers, but maybe not. While it’s possible that these penguins have grown used to the presence of humans in their breeding area–though not capture, since that is a rare occurrence–the regular disturbance may be contributing to the selection of specific phenotypes, those that are most suited to handle this kind of stress. Over time, the population would evolve to handle this disturbance better and better. That may seem like a good thing, but the resulting population, the scientists say, may be less able to cope with environmental change.
This is hardly the first time that researchers have found that their methods have had unintended consequences for the animals they study. A penguin study published last year, for example, found that the use of flipper bands resulted in lower survival rates for the birds; it was just the latest in four decades of research that had been hinting that banding penguins was bad for the birds. But this latest study is another reminder to the science community that they can easily become one of the anthropogenic disturbances that affect the animals they are studying.
“A central question for ecologists is the extent to which anthropogenic disturbances [such as tourism] might impact wildlife and affect the systems under study,” lead author Vincent Viblanc of the Université de Strasbourg said in a statement. “One of the major pitfalls of such research is in forgetting that, from the perspective of the wildlife studied, tourism and scientific research are not two worlds apart.”