36 Cat Facts for International Cat Day

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Hi, I'm John Green. Welcome to my salon. This is mental_floss on YouTube. And this is Lyla. You know, Lyla, we have a lot in common: we're both friends with Meredith, we both live in Indiana, we both hate mice. The major difference is that you do your own grooming, whereas I rely upon Mark for my makeup.

1. Anyway, did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if Abe Lincoln had any hobbies? And her reply was "cats."

2. Since I'm talking about historical figures who loved cats, Charles Dickens once said, "What greater gift than the love of a cat?" You have to remember he lived before the Xbox One.

3. John Lennon was also a big fan of cats. Over the years, he had cats named Salt and Pepper, Major and Minor, Tim, Sam, Mimi, Bernard, Sally, Elvis, and Jesus. Do you think Jesus walked around just thinking he was, you know … Jesus? Of course he did, he was a cat.

4. Polydactyl felines are sometimes called Hemingway cats because Ernest Hemingway once had a six-toed cat named Snowball. He let it run wild outside his Key West home and now some 40-50 six-toed descendants of Snowball who are still allowed to roam around his house.

5. Speaking of which, outdoor cats somehow time-share areas to prevent fights. Like, even if multiple cats like going to the same place, they seem to have some way of knowing how to avoid each other.

6. In 1884, Thomas Edison reportedly made the first viral cat video. He filmed two cats hashing it out in a tiny boxing ring, with a bit of help from human handlers of course. It's a great video, but I'm gonna stick with keyboard cat.

7. The cat who played Crookshanks in Harry Potter endured a great indignity in service to his work. His trainers would gather bits of his shed fur, roll it into balls, and clip them back onto him in order to really pump up his rough and and slightly mangy appearance.

8. Onto another famous cat—Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless sphinx from the Austin Powers movies, is named SGC Belfry Ted Nude-Gent.

Anybody—Nude-Gent? Eh? 'Cause he's a sphinx.

9. Some cats who had nothing to do with the film industry still managed to get famous—for example, Humphrey was the first feline to be named "Chief Government Mouser" in the United Kingdom.

The black-and-white cat wandered into number 10 Downing Street in 1989, and was quickly employed by the cabinet office. He remained in the esteemed position for three successive Prime Ministers, proving that while it's hard out there for a cat, it's harder out there for a Prime Minister.

10. Anyway, nowadays, the British Government employs over 100,000 cats to keep mice away—that's almost double the population of Greenland.

11. Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, didn't love the family's Labrador Retriever, Buddy, which is an example of irony, because his name was literally Buddy.

12. A cat named Tibbles, along with several other cats, caused the Stephens Island Wren to go extinct as a result of over-hunting, which leads to the question—who would name their cat Tibbles?

No wonder he acted out in anger and hunted down all those Stephens Island Wrens!

13. The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs. He is now responsible for the town's steady stream of around 30-40 tourists daily, which is pretty good, or a town of just 900 people.
Some of us know Talkeetna, Alaska because of the Talkeetna Bluegrass festival, which is famous because that's where I got dumped one time.

14. In 1963, France sent the first cat into space, but in the two years prior, they had sent several rats into space. No word on whether the cat was able to you know, like, track down the rats. Probably not, though—I've seen Gravity.

This cat's on its way to space, but I don't see George Clooney so I'm a little nervous.

15. In the early 1800s, Trim the cat, along with his owner, Captain Matthew Flinders, completed the first ever circumnavigation of Australia.

16. And since we're talking about history, scientists once believed that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt, approximately 4,000 years ago. But new research, published in 2013, shows that a breed of once wild cats lived in close proximity to farmers in China some 5300 years ago.

17. Hairballs were once though to cure epilepsy, the plague, and poisoning; like, during the Middle Ages, hairballs were even set in gold. You can also set a cat in gold.

18. In the 1870s, a Belgian village trained 37 mail cats to deliver letters. Conceived by the esteemed Belgian Society for the Elevation of the Domestic Cat, the plan was to wrap waterproof mail bags around each feline's neck … and the plan failed.

19. But some cats have jobs that they're actually pretty successful at, like Tama, the cat who's a station master at the Wakayama Electric Rail Station in Japan, and has two assistants who are also cats.

A study done in 2008 found that Tama helped bring in annually 1.1 billion yen, or $10.44 million, to the local economy thanks to tourism, because who doesn't wanna go to a station that's run by a cat?

20. Russia loses about $800 million a year from illegal sturgeon fishing. So in 2003, police in Stavropol hired a cat named Rusik to sniff out sturgeon smugglers.

21. Speaking of Russia, in the 1960s America deployed the first cat ever used to spy on the Russians. It cost 20 million dollars, and was immediately hit by a taxi after leaving the CIA van. This cat had recording devices surgically implanted into it, and it made it, like, one minute into Russia.

22. In 1997, Ketzel the cat jumped on a piano and created a song. The cat's owner transcribed that tune and submitted the piece to a Parisian music competition, where it won a prize! That's awesome, even cats are less tone deaf than I am.

23. Then of course we have fictional cats, like Hello Kitty, who was actually partially named after Alice's cat, Kitty, from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The creator added the "Hello" later. Why is Hello Kitty in a jar by the way?

24. Speaking of name origins, Tom, of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, was originally named Jasper.

25. Nyan cat was created by 25-year-old Christopher Torres while he was participating in a donation drive for the Red Cross. One person suggested he draw a pop-tart, and another person suggested that he draw a cat. He ended up creating the first hybrid pop-tart-cat.

26. Some cats are actually allergic to humans. Like, 1 in every 200 cats is diagnosed with cat asthma, which is worse when they come into contact with humans. Some people are allergic to cats, of course, but I find that 1 in 200 people lie and say they have a cat allergy, when in fact, they just don't like cats.

27. According to Psychology Today, quote, "The brains of cats have an amazing surface folding and a structure that is about 90% similar to ours." The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that's responsible for cognitive information processing, is actually more complex in cats than it is in dogs and cats have some 300 million neurons, whereas dogs only have about 160 million.

28. Speaking of cat brains, cats also have their own form of Alzheimer's disease. Also like us, they can get fat. In fact 55% of American cats are either overweight or obese.

29. Cats also can't taste sweet food, which makes me wonder—how are they getting obese?!

30. Cats purr when they're content, but they also purr then they're giving birth, or sick, or nursing, or wounded, or in a stressful situation.

Ugh! Cats! Can't you be straight-forward about any of your feelings?! They're astonishingly emotionally complex. Or maybe they just hate me. I can't tell, actually.

31. Speaking of how complicated a creature the cat is, some cats prefer licking their paws to drinking out of a water bowl if they don't like the shape of the water bowl. Some also experience what's called "Whisker Stress". They may not like the pressure of their whiskers while they eat or drink.

32. Cats spend between 30 and 50% of their days cleaning themselves, which means that even though your cat poops in the house, it's still cleaner than most hipsters. Meredith, we can't say bad things about hipsters, that's our core audience!

33. Hairballs, by the the way, aren't just for cats. Cows and rabbits are especially prone to hairballs, but their bodies aren't designed to vomit them up.

34. How do you keep future generations away from nuclear waste? This might be a job for cats.

35. Fascinatingly, it seems that cats that tumble from great heights have a much better chance of survival than those who fall from 5 stories or fewer. Obviously, don't try this at home, but it may be because terminal velocity for a cat isn't that high and if it comes from really high up it has some more time to like get ready for the fall. Don't try it at home!

36. And finally I return to my salon to tell you, and also Lyla, the record for a cat surviving a fall, 43 stories. Lyla, I think that's taller than the tallest building in Indianapolis, so you should be fine.

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.


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