Science

  • Issue 105 / May - June 2015



    The World of Cats

    Ibrahim Ugurlu

    We often overlook cats. They're pets and companions. But in truth, they're so much more. Blessed with some incredible traits, cats are actually marvels of creation.

    Cats have lived with humans since ancient times. They are one of the most friendly, playful, cute residents of our houses. These creatures claim corners on our beds during winter time, their quiet cat songs keeping us company at night. They have become indispensible heroes in cartoons, stories, novels, and movies. Without cats, no village, neighborhood, or street can be complete. Cats are remarkable creatures in many ways. Sure, they are loyal and like to be spoiled a little bit. They are not aggressive and they love games. Almost anything can be a toy to them. They are very careful about their hygiene. But there's so much more to cats than just being adorable pets.

    Cats are born with their eyes closed and no sense of hearing, but they improve their abilities over time. Their sense of vision develops every day and babies require approximately five months to be able match the visual capabilities of an adult cat. To augment their abilities, kittens have incredible senses of smell.

    This can be witnessed when kittens are fed by their mother. A mother cat designates a nipple for each baby. When kittens that seem to be fighting each other during nursing are observed carefully, one can see that each newborn is trying to reach their own designated nipple. They find it through their incredible sense of smell.

    As mentioned above, though cats are friendly, they will occasionally misbehave. This naughtiness hints that their predatory instincts are still intact. The development of their hunting ability is honed through games and aided by the fact that kittens do not have feelings of fear before they are six weeks old. During this short time, they are required to obtain sufficient experience to survive. When they are one year old, a cat will have all their adult characteristics.

    One defining trait of cats is their flexibility. Cats have 40 more bones than humans and this enables them with such flexibility. Most of these bones are located in the spine and tail sections. The advanced flexibility of the lumbar bones provides cats with agility. The disks positioned in between vertebrae are tighter than the disks of human vertebra. This feature naturally enables cats to move uniquely and flex their body up to 11%.

    This also means that when a cat encounters prey, it can estimate the distance at a glance and can jump 1.5 meters without needing any speed. The human equivalent would be jumping 8.5 meters without a running start. Another aspect of this flexibility is that cats can go through any opening that their heads fit through because they lack a clavicle. They also have powerful legs and their paws are created in a way to contract within a fraction of a second upon landing. Their retractable claw acts as a hook when protruded completely and permits them to climb and grasp vertical surfaces.

    Animals with nine lives!

    When falling, cats open their legs sideways to generate a parachute effect. By doing this, they control their speed to prepare for a soft landing and land on their feet with remarkable reflexes. A fluid in their inner ear moves when they are not in balance and they develop a reflex to help them land on their paws. There is one problem: they cannot relax their muscles completely when falling from places that are not high enough, disabling the parachute effect. The risk of injury for cats is lower if they fall from the thirty-second floor (100 m) than if they fall from the seventh floor, experiments have shown.

    Sensing earthquakes
    Cats have many senses that are significantly stronger than human senses. Sight and hearing, which are required for hunting and survival, are the two basic senses more advanced than the rest. Every sound they hear feels very powerful. For instance, the tic-tac sounds of a clock are four times stronger to cats than to humans. Cats are granted the skill to distinguish high frequency sounds that humans and even dogs cannot notice. This skill enables them to separate between the voices of people. In addition, there are more than 20 muscles in a cat's ear. This enables the independent movement and control of each ear. Thus they can determine the source of sound with speed and precision, and detect the exact location of prey from just a small movement in one-sixteenth of a second.

    These cute animals are skilled at feeling the weakest vibrations. With this skill, cats are considered to have the ability to feel earthquakes a couple of days in advance, like some other animals, though it is not exactly understood how this occurs. It is possible that these animals can even sense vibrations too small to be captured by measuring systems. Despite all the efforts of scientists, they struggle to forecast the timing of earthquakes even with modern technological devices. However, many animal species display abnormal behaviors hours and even days before an earthquake. This remains a mystery how animals react in such a way. Therefore, data acquired with detailed studies performed on animals will surely provide many benefits in terms of accurate prediction of earthquakes.

    A cat's eye
    Cat's eyes are also created in a fashion to let them focus on their prey. Sharp vision is as important as the sense of hearing for a night hunter. During hunting, the target is in focus and everything else is blurry. Cat's eyes, when compared to human eyes, contain many extra cells in charge of sensing light, including a crystal layer behind the retina that absorbs all available but unused light. Like other nocturnal animals, cats have the layer called “tapetum lucidum” in their eyes. This layer reflects light like a mirror, and for this reason, cat's eyes shine in darkness. This reflection effect even permits cats to utilize the lowest level of light possible. The iris can adjust its width depending on the light's strength, just like the diaphragm of a camera; this allows cats to distinguish their surroundings in the dark. Another feature of Tapetum lucidum is that when light strikes a cat's eye from an angle, it causes the eye to shine, even in dim light.

    There are limits to cat's night vision powers – and they make up for this with their whiskers. A cat's whiskers enable them to sense the slightest changes in the air. These facial hairs work like a radar system, helping them to identify the outline of objects that they barely see.

    Sensing fear
    The one sense cat's lack when compared to humans is their sense of taste. Cat tongues have 25% less papillae (taste buds) than human tongues; they do not enjoy sugary foods. The pleasure these animals get from eating is related to another sense granted to them in addition to smell and taste. Cats have an organ located at the frontal section of their palate which is lacking in humans. It's called the Jacobson organ. Chemical signals enter the mouth and end up in a small capsule after passing through the opening in between two palates located behind the front teeth. These chemical cues are stored here. This means that they can taste chemical signals. Even though it is not possible for cats to compete with dogs in terms of olfactory senses, this ability is fourteen times more powerful than human's sense of smell. This skill is used for social communication. It's likely that cats recognize people through their scents. While a human nose houses only 5 million olfactory cells, there are around 200 million sensory cells placed in the small noses of cats. A significant portion of their brain is ready to sense, assess, and respond properly to chemical signals.

    Tidy animals
    Cats dedicate a major portion of their time to cleaning. These animals truly enjoy their cleaning sessions. It takes a long time to fix their tangled fur. In addition, their fur must be bright and well cleaned in order to protect their body against exposure to external elements like cold air and rain. Cats lick their paws to use them like gloves to clean their faces. Their tongue is long and there are small projections found in the rear section. This section, rich in buds, acts like a brush and enables them to better clean their fur. The tongue triggers the oil glands at the base of each hair. A fluid is secreted that makes a cat's fur waterproof.

    Despite their fur, cats do not get heat exhaustion. The hairs not only prevent them from feeling intense heat, but also keep them warm by insulating them from the surrounding environment. These animals also display strong resistance to pain. This results from their high levels of endorphin, the hormone for pain reduction.

    Sleeping beauties
    Cats spend 2/3 of their lives sleeping. Therefore they are often used as experimental animals for sleep-related research. It is possible to say that we owe most of the information regarding sleep mechanisms and the effects of sleep to cats.

    Natural navigation
    Cats are created with the perfect tool for navigation. Experiments have shown that they can cover miles of road to return back to their home. It is thought that these animals find their way by employing the sun and the Earth's magnetic field. What is hard to explain is how they happen to find a new house when their owners move. It is still unknown whether this skill originates from a certain sensory mechanism or whether cats are provided with even sharper senses than we think they have. Whatever the answers may be for these questions, we can simply conclude that cats are animals which have been truly blessed in a way that allows them to adapt to their environments.

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