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Cats Didn't Need Our Help to Become Domesticated

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Among domestic animals, cats are best known for their independence. With good reason: They have been living alongside humans for far longer than they've been domesticated. Felines lived side by side with humans for thousands of years before we finally began to influence their breeding, according to new research (via Smithsonian). Whereas it has been 40,000-odd years since we started domesticating dogs, selective breeding of cats may have started only in the medieval era.

Writing in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists from the University of Leuven in Belgium and the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris (among many other institutions) analyzed cat DNA from ancient and modern cats from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia, looking at samples dating back 9000 years. They got their samples from the bones and teeth from more than 200 cat remains from Stone Age sites, Viking graves, and Egyptian tombs.

There is plenty of evidence that cats and humans have lived together for millennia, like a cat skeleton buried with a person in Cyprus around 7500 BCE and skeletons of cats buried in an Egyptian cemetery from around 3700 BCE. But the "evidence points to a commensal relationship between cats and humans lasting thousands of years before humans exerted substantial influence on their breeding," they write.

Domestication came in two waves, according to this research. Of five different subspecies of wildcat that originated all over the world, domestic cats only belong to one: Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat. When the first farmers in the Fertile Crescent began to store grain from their fields, wildcats flocked to hunt the mice that were attracted to the food stores. Farmers likely began to tame these cats, realizing that they could keep rodents away from the food supply. These cats from the Middle East then started to spread into Europe.

Several thousand years later, ancient Egyptian cats began to spread out across what is now Turkey, Bulgaria, and other places, becoming a more common type than the Middle Eastern cats that had previously dominated the population. Egyptian cats traveled throughout the world thanks to shipping, because boats needed feline sailors to keep rats from chewing through their ropes and eating their food on board. Egyptian cat DNA showed up in samples from as far north as a Viking port on the Baltic Sea, so it's likely that they were taken on trade routes to northern Europe.

Unlike with dogs, though, it seems that people were employing cats as mousers but not selecting specific aesthetic traits. People haven't been breeding cats until quite recently—just about 700 years ago. In order to pinpoint the spread of domestication by humans (which is a contentious thing to define, as house cats are still very similar genetically to their wild cousins), the researchers followed the spread of the genetic change that leads to blotched tabby markings; because the coloration is due to a recessive gene mutation, its proliferation was probably due to humans breeding for that pattern. (It doesn't show up in wildcat populations.) According to the scientists' samples, the allele for this pattern didn't show up until the medieval era, around 1300 CE, when it was present in what is now Turkey. It would take a long time before humans really began choosing their cats for their appearance. Breeding for looks didn't really take off until the 19th century.

Even now, cats are much more like their wild counterparts than dogs are. They may be tame, but thanks to their ability to live in harmony with humans while remaining independent, they've managed to retain many of the physical and genetic characteristics of their wild brethren.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]

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