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Cats Invaded Australia in the 19th Century, Study Finds

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There'd be no such thing as a "cat lady" in Australia were it not for European explorers, a new study argues. Domestic cats aren’t native to the continent, and had to arrive from either Europe or Asia, though when exactly they arrived and from where has been a matter of debate. 

In order to figure out how long cats have been in Australia, and where they came from, a team of German, American, and Australian researchers traced the genetic history of the continent’s feral cat populations. In a study published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, they examined the genetics of cat populations in six different places on the Australian mainland and on seven different Australian islands, comparing their genetic makeup to DNA data from European and Southeast Asian cat populations. 

They found that cats probably arrived from Europe in the 19th century. European explorers, whalers, and sailors may have had cats on their ships as a form of rodent control, and colonists brought them along for their new settlements, too. 

Since there was no population of cats whose DNA could be traced solely back to Asia, they probably did not initially arrive from there. One alternative history of Australia's feral cat populations postulates that they came with Malaysian sea cucumber fishermen (trepangers) in the 1650s, but this analysis shows that to be implausible. Though the researchers did find genetic sequences associated with Asian cats, those may have arrived in Australia later, or mixed with European cat populations before traveling down under.

Cats are far from the only invasive species in Australia. The continent’s flora and fauna were isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, and with a few exceptions like the dingo, there weren’t many new species entering the region until Europeans began to settle there. When Europeans arrived, they brought with them familiar animals and plants from home, both intentionally and by accident, including rabbits, horses, foxes, and several types of rats. Over the years, many of these new species have become pests, destroying the native ecology of the region, and, per a 2004 government report, costing more than $5.2 million a year. By dating feral cat populations’ arrival, researchers can also track the subsequent decline of other species, helping establish exactly what kind of impact these invasive species have on local ecology. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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