Friday, September 14, 2007

Cats: Perfection In Nature

I regard cats as one of the most perfect specimens of the natural world. I am referring to both wild and domestic species, as the similarities between all cat species are remarkably great; the same essential design is present from the diminutive Pallas cat to the enormous Siberian tiger. Felines have adapted to nearly every habitable terrestrial climate, including frosty Himalayan peaks, arid African deserts, and bustling human cities. They capture our eyes and our imaginations, they inspire our awe, fear, and love, and they reflect our sensuality and intelligence in an uncanny fashion.

Cats have superb senses. They have night vision, and they are very good at spotting moving things. While they do not see much color, this allows them to see a camouflaged animal more readily than we can. Their sense of smell is fourteen times better than ours, which allows them to use odor to demarcate and detect territories, locate mates, and track prey. Their hearing is superb, picking up frequencies higher than even dogs can detect, and distinguishing variances that are as minute as a tenth of a tone. This, coupled with their big, cup-like ears that swivel as much as 180 degrees, allows them to hear the vocalizations of rodents underground or behind walls, pinpoint a sound's origin very accurately and quickly, and hear and recognize the distress cries of their lost young from a distance.

Cat whiskers are probably the most underrated of sense organs they possess. If you find a shed whisker from your cat, hold the thick (root) end tightly between your thumb and finger. With your other hand, brush the fine end of the whisker. Flick it gently, then harder; you will feel the root end's vibration very strongly when you do this. Imagine, then, having dozens of these on your upper lip and cheeks, several on your eyebrows, and a few on your wrists! Don't believe me about the wrists? Check your cat's wrists; they are shorter than the ones on his face, but they work the same way. The wrist whiskers, or carpal vibrissae are especially useful in landing and feeling for prey. The facial vibrissae have a variety of uses; brush the ones above your cat's eyes, and she will blink. The ones on their muzzle are helpful in detecting minute changes in the breeze, determining whether kitty can fit into a crevice, and navigating in the dark. They also use their whiskers to detect signs of life in their prey and find the proper spot on the prey's neck to bite and kill it. They also have an excellent sense of touch. Their paws can detect very slight vibrations, and they can sense temperature changes very well in both their paws and noses. There are many whisker-like hairs scattered throughout their fur to serve a similar purpose as whiskers, called tylotrichs.

Running and jumping with speed and agility that inspires envy in the most fleet-footed human, cats are well-engineered for speed and leaping. They can move quietly, with incredible economy of motion (meaning, they don't bounce up and down as they're walking or running, or use a lot of excess body movement--we're pretty ungainly creatures ourselves, compared to the majority of the rest of the animal world). They have long, strong back legs, a wonderful tail for balance, and incredible flexibility to increase their stride. In fact, it seems that their only flaw in this regard is their lack of endurance; if a cheetah could keep its pace going for longer than 400 yards, they would be a far more successful and prolific creature than they are.

Cat reproduction is another model of evolutionary success; they become pregnant quite readily, have a fairly short gestation period, and are generally able to give birth with few complications. Their young, while born blind and helpless, grow and learn quickly, and, compared to other intelligent mammal species, mature fast. A domestic cat is mature within a year, and a tiger within four. Compare this to a human's sexual maturity at around sixteen years (although they are capable of reproduction earlier), and the elephants' 9-12 years. Additionally, while cats do carry their neonates when moving to a new den, the young are capable of moving around on their own and don't need to be carried all the time like human infants.

The intelligence of felines is well-known; they are clever, adaptable, resourceful, and strong-willed. They are born with a number of instincts, but they also teach their young and learn quickly. They adapt quickly to new situations and changes in their environment. Most species are solitary in nature, and they must learn complex rules of territory and social interaction because of this. Many animals live in groups, and their survival is based upon safety in numbers; a cat must be self-reliant and very cautious and sneaky to survive. Studies have shown that they are capable of problem-solving and forming "learning sets". Cats view their world three-dimensionally, too; they take into account branches, ledges, and other variations in terrain, while we tend to be more two-dimensional. Since we cannot tiptoe along a fence top, it does not register on our mental map, while a cat takes it into consideration in its circuitous route--routes that seem inefficent and roundabout to us are often utilized to avoid others' territory, place one's own territory markers, and investigate one's domain. Indeed, my little Aakhu will patrol the entire house, and if you attempt to distract him while he is making his rounds, you will have a difficult time getting his attention for very long.

The bodies and minds of cats are marvelous and successful; they are often the apex predator of their habitats, and they are capable of taking down large and dangerous prey, including elephants, giraffes, venomous snakes, and, the deadliest of all potential prey animals, human beings. They are adaptable to different climates, terrains, food sources, and human interaction. Their heightened senses predict earthquakes, accurately dectet prey and danger, and allow them to find shelter and water quickly. There is very little about the cat's design that isn't a model of perfection, and it is quite understandable that humans would admire and envy their grace and beauty.

Recommended reading:
The Tribe of Tiger
This book describes the evolution of cats and gives remarkable insight into their behavior and biology. It has a lot of anecdotes, and some readers did not like its focus on wild species, but I really liked it.

The Secret Life of Tigers
This is one of the best books available for learning about the natural history of tigers.

Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild
Becoming a Tiger is about how animals develop into adults; it is about more than just tigers, but it's good reading nonetheless.

(I also welcome your suggestions for books)

1 comment:

vesta44 said...

I've always loved cats, and your post illustrates many of the reasons why. I want to be cat in my next life.