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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 the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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 Causes Sinkholes?
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This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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