Why Cats Meow

Cat owners will tell you they can detect the difference between a contented meow and an annoyed meow, a scared meow and a playful meow, and so on. This is, perhaps, by design -- cats, as it turns out, rarely meow to one another. Most often their meows are directed at their owners, and slight modulations can carry different meanings.

For instance, when I've been away for a few days, my cat starts in with the Hey, quit leaving, I missed you meows, which are clipped and rapid, and come out in a long stream that can last, maddeningly, for hours. (I appreciate the sentiment, cat -- but shut up!) According to the ASPCA, these are other common meows:

The what's up meow, which depending on your cat's mood you can expect when you walk into a room, encounter the cat in the yard, or speak to your cat. I can attest to that last one: my cat's pretty talkative, and you can have entire back-and-forth "conversations" with her, with me saying only her name. It's cute, if not terribly enlightening.

The play with me meow. "Cats enjoy social contact with people, and some will be quite vocal in their requests for attention."

To ask for food. "Most cats like to eat," the ASPCA helpfully points out, "and they can be quite demanding around mealtimes. Some cats learn to meow whenever anyone enters the kitchen, just in case food might be forthcoming."

Let me in / out. My cat hates-hates-HATES closed doors of any kind, which makes life a little difficult when, say, I'm trying to sleep in one room and my wife is watching TV in the next room; kitty goes nuts if I close the door. Damn cat.

The senile meow. "Elderly cats suffering from mental confusion, or cognitive dysfunction, may meow if they become disoriented—a frequent symptom of this feline version of Alzheimer’s Disease."

• The one major exception to the "cats don't meow to one another very often" rule seems to be when they're looking for mates, in which case they start yowling like nobody's business.

Of course, there are many shades of meaning when it comes to feline vocalization -- cat owners, what are some of the things your cat tries to communicate? Anything weirdly specific or funny?

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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