The phrase 'like herding cats' resonates with people for a reason; it's difficult to get them to do anything they don't already want to do.
But they have no problem getting humans to do their bidding, according to a report published in Current Biology, which shows that even biologists are concerned about future feline-human relations.
It seems crafty felines accelerate the filling of food dishes by sending a mixed signal: an urgent meowing coupled with an otherwise pleasant purr. Humans find it annoying and difficult to ignore. It's not April 1st or December so calibrate your belief accordingly.
"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. "Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom." She suggests that this form of cat communication sends a subliminal sort of message, tapping into an inherent sensitivity that humans and other mammals have to cues relevant in the context of nurturing their offspring.
McComb said that she was inspired by her own cat, who consistently wakes her up in the mornings with a very insistent purr. She learned in talking with other cat owners that some of their cats too had mastered the same manipulative trick. As a scientist who already studied vocal communication in mammals, from elephants to lions, she decided to get to the bottom of it.
It turned out that wasn't so easy to do. The cats were perfectly willing to use their coercive cries in private, but when strangers came around they tended to clam right up. Her team therefore had to train cat owners to record their own cats' cries.
In a series of playback experiments with those calls, they found that humans judged the purrs recorded while cats were actively seeking food as more urgent and less pleasant than those made in other contexts, even if they had never had a cat themselves.
"We found that the crucial factor determining the urgency and pleasantness ratings that purrs received was an unusual high-frequency element—reminiscent of a cry or meow—embedded within the naturally low-pitched purr," McComb said. "Human participants in our experiments judged purrs with high levels of this element to be particularly urgent and unpleasant." When the team re-synthesised the recorded purrs to remove the embedded cry, leaving all else unchanged, the urgency ratings for those calls decreased significantly.
McComb said she thinks this cry occurs at a low level in cats' normal purring, "but we think that cats learn to dramatically exaggerate it when it proves effective in generating a response from humans." In fact, not all cats use this form of purring at all, she said, noting that it seems to most often develop in cats that have a one-on-one relationship with their owners rather than those living in large households, where their purrs might get overlooked by poorly trained people.
In those instances, she said, cats seem to find it more effective to stick to the standard meow.
Article: Karen McComb, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.; Anna M. Taylor, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.; Christian Wilson, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.; Benjamin D. Charlton, Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia, GA, 'The cry embedded within the purr', Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 13, R507-R508, 14 July 2009, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.033
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- How We Predict Climate Decades Ahead - Yet Can't Forecast Weather Ten Days Ahead - Chaos Patterned With Order
- Should Pregnant Women Be Concerned About BPA?
- The Five Stages Of A Dying Theory
- Time, Wittgenstein And Language Scaffolding
- Russian scientists increase DVD storage capacity million times
- Neanderthals: Not So Dumb
- When Salt Is An Endocrine Disruptor, The Term Is Officially Meaningless
- "Websites like thelabbible and Unilad are all about clickbait. There is no true journalism within..."
- "Yes for sure. If you need support then there are several facebook groups where you can meet other..."
- "Hi F,okay, I see your point of view. Yes, there are many feelings at play when one joins the bandwagon..."
- "Hi, I somehow disagree with your view of theorists: it was not belief or disbelief in the potential..."
- "Your really really positive and sure that nothing is going to happen please Mr walker i am actually..."
- Annoying Studies’ Series: Newborn Weight Gain (Again!)
- Five PM? Time for Breakfast!
- Include Aerobic Fitness in Physical Exams, Heart Association Recommends
- Female Vervet Monkeys Assault Males that Do Not Participate in Fights
- Vaginal Ring Effective for HIV Infection Prevention
- Winter is No Wonderland