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Cats: mutations and fur color, animal cognition, Istanbul

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Cats: mutations and fur color, animal cognition, Istanbul
By Melissa Lewis • Issue #5 • View online
Yesterday I got out of the house a little and went to a friend’s birthday gathering at a local beer bar. I ate a rose and pistachio cupcake, drank an “experimental lambic,” watched a live stream of friends’ kittens, and started planning my future living from an RV.
The same friends with kittens and RV advice also tipped me off to Wikipedia having a comprehensive article on cat coat genetics.

Why do Siamese cats have that coat pattern?
You won’t be surprised that the short answer is “well, genes.” But in this particular case (and, less dramatically, in Burmese cats), they have a mutation that makes their fur color temperature-sensitive!
Bear with me for the longer story: Just like with human hair, darker colors come from the pigment melanin. One factor in the process of melanin production is an enzyme called tyrosinase. Its role is what’s called rate-limiting; the whole melanin production process can only go as fast or as far as tyrosinase allows.
This enzyme is important to more than just cats, though. In humans, tyrosinase impairment can apparently lead to overproduction of the pigment, resulting in phenomena like melasma and age spots.
In Siamese cats, the mutation makes tyrosinase ineffective in warmer parts of the body. And we we wind up with an adorable visualization of cats’ surface temperatures, as a consequence!
I love how the gradient is more gradual on its legs! <3 Wikipedia.
I love how the gradient is more gradual on its legs! <3 Wikipedia.
Cat cognition: too cool for school
As much as I love cats and science, I’ve struggled with popular science writing on animal cognition, because our intuitions about animal psychology make us even more inclined to simplify what already lends itself to sensational research.
I see it mentioned a lot, but I don’t think this popular study suggests cats are all that smart. They appear to recognize differences between their humans’ voices and strangers’ voices, but largely ignore both. It’s funny, but I only see it as suggesting that cats can respond to a conditioned stimulus – its human’s voice is associated with inherently great stuff like food (unconditioned stimuli), while a stranger’s isn’t.
This is a lot of text, so here's a cute cat video to break it up!
This is a lot of text, so here's a cute cat video to break it up!
This Slate writeup, though, quotes more interesting research, including a study (behind yet another damn paywall) in which cats had to attend to which of two cups a volunteer pointed to, which had treats inside. Many cats simply didn’t care to participate, but of those that did, performance was apparently on par with that of dogs.
My favorite part of the Slate piece:
Now before you conclude that cats are dumber than dogs […] consider this: Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years—20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the “human radio frequency”—the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that’s why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don’t hang on our every word like dogs do. They’re surfing other channels on the dial. And that’s ultimately what makes them so hard to study.
To me, this is exemplary popular science writing – it doesn’t just report on a cool finding, but gives us context. What we start out thinking is a matter of the unified idea of “intelligence” turns out to be a matter of how we can responsibly define intelligence for animals we don’t understand.
You might immediately balk at a headline as facile as “X is smarter than Y,” but what about “Scientific research of intelligence finds X performs better than Y”? The latter is more responsible – it focuses on the idea that this story is about research on intelligence rather than intelligence itself, and states a fact about that research.
But I think a good story should also empower the reader to see any such research both as fractional and provisional. Not only is this factual thing a small part of the whole endeavor that draws us in the first place – what is intelligence? – but it may not be true of the next study!
The point here is that part of what makes scientific research so beautiful is that it is a humble, toilsome project. People take a grand epistemic or moral problem and chip off ever smaller pieces of it to turn over and over, and then, funding permitting, hand it off for more turning when they’re done.
I would argue that the best science communication embraces this, and makes a lot of space for uncertainty. Ed Yong is among my favorite science writers and has this piece on the trouble with measuring animal intelligence. I’m also fired up on this topic because I’m reading a book on bird cognition right now, and it might already be one of my favorite popular science books: The Genius of Birds. Ackerman’s prose carries her obvious enthusiasm for the subject and a healthy awareness of what about preceding research sets us up to miss the varieties of cognition that exist in other animals.
Causal understanding of water displacement by a crow - YouTube
Causal understanding of water displacement by a crow - YouTube
Just watch this documentary on cats!
Okay, I wrote a lot more than I anticipated on the rest, and I’ll keep this short: just watch Kedi. Seriously. It’s $4 to rent, and it’s absolutely worth the time and money, even if you’re only kind of into cats. It’s meditative, but not ponderous; it’s about cats, but also the humans who love them, all in Istanbul. I can’t believe how well they follow cats, for one, but I also can’t believe how exquisitely they move the viewer around the city otherwise. I just felt soothed watching it. Full disclosure, though: I definitely cried more than once. Tell me if you do too!
Kedi - Official U.S. Trailer
Kedi - Official U.S. Trailer
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Melissa Lewis

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