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Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?

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Dogs are friendly, cats are smart. This simple, albeit simplistic, dichotomy has been cited—and argued over—by many a pet owner. But still, the question remains: Is it true that felines are more intelligent than their canine counterparts?

We hate to burst the bubbles of all the ailurophiles reading this, but experts say that comparing cat intelligence to dog smarts is like comparing apples and oranges: “Intelligence evolves to solve problems that are recurrent over an evolutionary relevant timescale,” Rosalind Arden, a researcher at the London School of Economics who studies intelligence in people and dogs, tells Mental Floss. “This timescale is not fixed. Cats, who must eat meat, and dogs, who like meat but are more omnivorous, have faced different ecological, survival, and mating problems for a long time. We should therefore expect their cognitive abilities to differ.”

That said, cat cognition is fairly understudied. To test intelligence among animals, scientists need to come up with a study that presents a solvable problem to its non-human subjects; yields a “right” or “wrong” answer; and has a measurable outcome, using criteria like how long, or how many trials, each animal took to solve said problem. And as you can probably imagine, cats are not the easiest subjects to test. (One scholar even said it was easier to work with fish.)

“Since dogs like snacks, we make food-oriented 'tests,''' Arden says. “With cats? Jeepers. Most of them say, 'I'll have mine with the organic double cream on the side, please.’ They are harder to work with. Kudos to those who manage it.”

So far experts know that cats have "object permanence," or the ability to know an object is there even when it goes out of sight—a prime example being a toy they've batted underneath a couch. They also seem to be able to figure out where the item has been moved, even if they aren't privy to the action itself.

Studies also show that felines can discriminate between quantities, follow a human-pointing gesture to find food, respond to their owners' emotions, distinguish between humans using only vocal cues, and figure out simple food puzzles—all similar to dogs. (Unlike dogs, however, cats won't look up at their owners for "help" if they can't solve a puzzle.)

Meanwhile, researchers in Japan recently found that cats may be able to respond to facial expressions, gestures, and human gestures, and discern which food bowl they had already eaten out of, compared to an untouched one, after a 15-minute interval.

However, we still have a long way to go before we figure out what felines are truly capable of—and when we do, we should compare them to other cats instead of dogs.

“I'd bet the house that some cats are smarter than others,” Arden says. "The slog for scholars is to expose those differences with rigorous science, and to show that those differences are reliable, meaning they don't change with the weather, and that they are valid, meaning that the animals with higher test scores are also better at doing things in the real world. That takes a lot of work. We are only at the beginning of figuring out how to test intelligence in other species.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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