Saturday, July 29, 2006

Felis silvestris catus

The taxon of the week is Felis silvestris catus, more commonly known as the domesticated cat.

Why does the cat, the subject of too much lore and legend to recount through weblogging, deserve airtime on the Jurisdynamics channel? Because the story of feline domestication is the story of civilization. Foraging societies have no real use for the cat. But once humans began living in sedentary settlements, they quickly recognized the value of a superb rodent-killing animal with no proclivity of its own (unlike dogs) to eat grains, fruits, or vegetables. As urban landscapes dominate more of the human environment, the cat has become the consummate city pet. Although the number of American households owning dogs exceeds the number owning cats, cats outnumber dogs in absolute terms in the United States. Originally domesticated in support of agrarian society, cats now rule in the twilight of the farm.

Any person living with a cat understands that no cat is ever truly "owned" by a human. Among putatively domesticated animals, the cat is unusually capable of getting by without human asisstance. The saga of human-feline mutualism, which is often non-obligatory on both sides of the relationship, thus offers lessons for game theory. Given how late the mutualistic relationship arose in the shared history of humans and cats, those lessons may shed especially clarifying light on how spontaneous, opportunistic partnerships arise within human society.

The cat depicted here is Sasha. Her tortoiseshell coloring is an expression of the complicated genetics of color in cats. Among other things, being a "tortie" all but guarantees that Sasha is female -- male torties, mosaics in the genetic as well as casual sense, have the feline equivalent of Klinefelter's syndrome -- and that her tortoiseshell coat can't be duplicated through cloning.

Suffice it to say that Sasha is irreplaceable.

3 Comments:

Blogger Belle Lettre said...

I never really got the point of "Friay cat blogging" (particularly on very popular blogs like The Washington Monthly's "Political Animal" by Kevin Drum--if it is name related, he should blog on other species too). But this post is good and interesting. I've always wondered about those old ladies who leave their homes to their cats--any estates lawyers in the house?

7/29/2006 9:05 PM  
Blogger Dan Farber said...

A saying that I heard recently: "Dogs have masters. Cats have staff."

7/30/2006 2:09 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

But what if the cats are tricking us into liking them?

see
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-08/uoc--cpm080206.php

which says

"A common parasite found in cats may be affecting human behavior on a mass scale.

...A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey published in the August 2 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology, indicates that behavioral manipulation of a common brain parasite may be among factors that play a role.

"In populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change," said study author Kevin Lafferty, a USGS scientist at UC Santa Barbara. "The geographic variation in the latent prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii may explain a substantial proportion of human population differences we see in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work and rules."

Although this sounds like science fiction, it is a logical outcome of how natural selection leads to effective strategies for parasites to get from host to host, said Lafferty. Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite of cats, both domestic and wild. While modern humans are a dead-end host for the parasite, Toxoplasma appears to manipulate personality by the same adaptations that normally help it complete its life cycle. The typical journey of the parasite involves a cat and its prey, starting as eggs shed in an infected cat's feces, inadvertently eaten by a warm-blooded animal, such as a rat. The infected rat's behavior alters so that it becomes more active, less cautious and more likely to be eaten by a cat, where the parasite completes its life cycle. Many other warm-blooded vertebrates may be infected by this pathogen. After producing usually mild flu-like symptoms in humans, the parasite tends to remain in a dormant state in the brain and other tissues."

8/04/2006 2:06 PM  

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