Gotham Coyote Project
Gotham Coyote Project

How Scientists Are Using Poop to Study New York City's Coyotes

Gotham Coyote Project
Gotham Coyote Project

Ten years ago, Jessica Carrero was walking in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park when what looked like a dog burst out of the woods and ran down the trail in front of her. But as she watched the animal, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation ranger could tell that it was no dog. “It didn't have a collar and it didn't move in a way that dogs move,” she says. “It wasn't nervous or excited—it seemed to move with a sense of purpose, knowing exactly where it was going.” A year earlier, she’d very briefly seen a similar looking animal in Pelham Bay Park. At the time, she wondered, Could that be a coyote? Then she second guessed herself. Back then, “it wasn’t confirmed that [coyotes were living] here,” she says. “I thought, ‘That had to be a stray dog. Coyotes just aren’t in New York City.’” But with this sighting, there could be no doubt: Though the animals' presence in the Bronx had not yet been confirmed, Carrero was looking at a Canis latrans.

Since that day 10 years ago, coyotes have firmly established themselves in New York City; they’ve been spotted everywhere from the Upper West Side to Battery Park City, from the rooftop of a Queens bar to Rikers Island, and they’re breeding in the Bronx’s parks. And Carrero—who was born and raised in the Bronx and has been with the park service for 15 years—has had plenty of confirmed encounters with the animals. She isn’t just on call to help relocate coyotes from residential backyards to wooded park lands—she’s also spotted them on the trails of parks in the Bronx. Once, she saw three pups playing in Pelham Bay Park; another time, she and two workers scared two coyotes away from a rabbit the canids had likely been hunting. “We saved the rabbit’s life,” she says, chuckling.

Many of her colleagues haven’t ever spotted a coyote, but Carrero estimates that she’s seen the animals nine times during her tenure with the park service. “I just have good luck,” she says.

Nine might not seem like all that many given the fact that Carrero and her colleagues spend most of their time walking the parks, but it suddenly becomes a lot when you compare it to the number of sightings scientists Mark Weckel and Chris Nagy have had between the two of them: five. (Two for Weckel, three for Nagy.) Which is a shame, considering that the pair spend their time studying New York City’s burgeoning coyote population as co-founders of the Gotham Coyote Project.

Founded in 2011, the project started with a simple question: Where are coyotes? The scope has expanded since then, says Weckel, whose day job is manager of the Science Research Mentoring Program at the American Museum of Natural History. Nagy is director of research at the Mianus River Gorge.

“From that time,” Weckel says, “we’ve expanded to questions like: How many are there? What are their genetic relationships? What impact could they have on the ecology of New York City?”

To answer those questions, the project has recruited scientists from universities and museums and enlisted the help of interns and volunteers. They’re in constant communication with Carrero and the Parks Department, and twice a year, they set up trail cams in New York City parks where coyotes have been sighted in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive animals. But eyewitness reports and trail cam photos can only tell scientists so much—namely, where coyotes are. To answer the tougher questions—how the animals are related, and what they’re eating—the scientists rely on poop.

Gotham Coyote Project

 
Up to about 200 years ago, the coyote inhabited the western part of North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico and from the Mississippi west to California. But as humans cleared forests for fields and eliminated apex predators like the eastern wolf and eastern cougar, the coyote expanded its range in all directions, adapting to, and thriving in, every new environment. Their new territory, stretching from Alaska as far south as Panama and to the eastern seaboard, marks a range expansion of at least 40 percent.

By the 1980s, the animals were breeding in New York State—everywhere except New York City and Long Island. And in the mid-’90s, coyotes made their move.

New York City consists of five boroughs: the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Staten Island and Manhattan are islands, and both Brooklyn and Queens are located on Long Island; the Bronx is the sole borough attached to the mainland United States, so it makes sense that first modern coyote sighting in New York City would be there. It occurred in February 1995, when the animal—a female—ran out onto the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx and was hit by a car (a statue was later erected in her honor). Another coyote was found shot in Van Cortlandt Park the next week, and yet another popped up not long after in Woodlawn Cemetery. By 2011, the coyote had established breeding populations in the Bronx, and these days, they pop up around the city to major fanfare.

Now, there’s just one last large landmass left to conquer: Long Island (including Brooklyn and Queens). Individuals have made the journey—either crossing bridges, using tunnels, or swimming across bodies of water to get there—but there aren’t currently any breeding populations in the area. Yet.

That fact, which came to Weckel’s attention when he was a graduate student at the City University of New York, directly inspired the Gotham Coyote Project. When the native New Yorker realized that no one was studying these coyotes, he jumped at the chance to do it: “You very rarely get a chance to understand what the first few individuals of a new population are doing.”

The group decided to find out as much about the animals as possible using one resource that was readily available to them. To find coyote poop, you have to go to where the coyotes are—so on a hot July morning, mental_floss headed up to Van Cortlandt Park to help Nagy and four interns in the search.

Potential coyote poop picked up in Van Cortland Park. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

 
From far away, coyote scat doesn’t look all that different from dog poop. But get closer, and you’ll start to see some discrepancies. Dog poop is homogenous, but coyote scat might contain sticks and stones, seeds and broken bones—and it might be more than a little fuzzy thanks to the fur from its kills.

We meet up with Nagy, the interns, and Nagy’s dog, Ethan—a small black-and-tan pup that he and a friend trained to sniff for scat—near Van Cortlandt’s horse stables, then take a short car ride to the section of the park Nagy wants to search. We walk in together, then split up into pairs to cover more ground.

Coyotes often poop right next to the trails people use—no need to tromp off into the woods to find scat—and most people who walk by piles in Van Cortlandt Park aren’t giving them a second glance. But we walk with our eyes trained on the ground, closely examining every brownish lump we find. It rained the night before, making soft objects indistinct; more than once, the potential poop turns out to be a rotten stick.

In theory, when Ethan picks up the right scent, he dwells over the spot. He usually finds at least one scat while on the hunt. “If I was doing this from scratch, I’d go to the pound and just get the most hyperactive OCD dog,” Nagy says. “Usually you just run a tennis ball up and down a fence, and if they go absolutely crazy for it, that’s your dog. My dog’s a little harder to please. He knows what we’re there for, and he does it—as long as there’s not a squirrel around.”

As temperatures soar into the 90s, it becomes too hot for Ethan to do his work. He’s panting, not sniffing with his nose, and every chipmunk (there are a lot of them in the Bronx) is a distraction. No amount of treats will get him back on task. After four hours of searching—during which we cover more than five miles—we pack it up and head back to the park entrance.

Nagy and Ethan came up empty, but one of the interns has a good eye for poop; she finds two samples. (Nagy has calculated that it takes around eight human hours to find a single scat, as compared to a dog’s four.) On a paper bag, she writes the park’s initials, the scat’s GPS coordinates, and her initials. After some discussion about how to scoop up the poop—Nagy has forgotten plastic gloves—another intern uses a second paper bag to pick it up and deposit it in the marked-up bag. Finally, she drops in a couple of packets of dessicant, which will dry the sample out.

Nagy puts the samples in his backpack. From here, he’ll deposit them in a cool, dry area under his porch until he has time to take them up to the lab. Then he calls it a day; it’s simply too hot to search anymore.

In the lab at Fordham University, Carol Henger adds lysis buffer to a test tube containing fecal material. Photo by Linelle Abueg.

 

When any creature defecates, it leaves behind cells on the surface of its waste. In those cells is DNA, which will reveal to researchers how New York City’s coyotes are related. This is where Carol Henger comes in. The Fordham University Ph.D. student can often be found in the lab, carefully scraping cells off coyote poop and analyzing them for DNA.

A former zookeeper—she cared for primates at the Bronx Zoo for 10 years—Henger had no idea there were coyotes in New York City when she decided to pursue a doctorate in biology. During the course of researching schools, she came across the website of her current advisor, Jason Munshi-South. “He had a clip where he was giving a TED Talk and he mentioned coyotes were in New York City,” she says. “I was surprised. And I was like, ‘I have to study this.’” Munshi-South was helping the Gotham Coyote Project collect scat to analyze it for DNA. Henger wanted in.

The scat comes to Henger in paper bags marked with details of where the samples were collected. If the scat is frozen—as it might be if the sample was moist when it was collected—it goes in the freezer. If it’s dry, she pops it into the filing cabinet she has converted for that purpose. “You really want to make sure a sample is dried out before you store it, or else it can get moldy,” she says.

When it’s time to process a sample, Henger removes it from storage and, using disposable plastic forceps, takes it out of the bag and places it on a sterilized petri dish. Next, she uses a scalpel to scrape off a tiny area of the outside of the scat. “I look for darker portions of the scat,” Henger says. “Anything furry will be prey DNA; dark areas have high fecal content,” which is where the coyote’s cells would be. She puts the scraping in a small test tube and fills it with lysis buffer, a solution that breaks open cells so scientists can analyze their compounds. After shaking the sample a bit, she puts it in an incubator and waits for the cells to open up—a process that, depending on the age of the specimen, can take anywhere from one to 12 hours. (To guard against contamination, everything from the petri dishes to the scalpel is single use and either thrown away or sterilized after it touches the scat. Henger also wipes down her work bench between processing scats.)

Once the cells are broken open, Henger adds Proteinase K, an enzyme that degrades the protein. “It can get in the way of extracting DNA,” she says. Centrifuging the sample will allow her to remove the liquid containing the proteins.

Finally, she adds an elution buffer, a solvent that binds to the DNA, and then stores that sample until it’s time for analysis. “I take a little bit of DNA from the tube, and then I add primers to it,” Henger says. “Primers are short segments of DNA, and they’ll bind to other strands of DNA in the coyote samples.” Next, she adds polymerase, an enzyme that starts a chain reaction. The primers will amplify 11 different markers—two of which indicate the sex of the animal—in the DNA (she uses another set of markers to determine whether the scat came from a coyote or just a domestic dog or red fox). “Those markers are variable among individuals,” Henger says, “and that gives me a unique genotype for each coyote.”

Henger has processed approximately 200 New York City scat samples since summer 2010, and the research is still ongoing; some of the processed samples, for example, didn’t reveal enough genetic information to identify individual coyotes. Still, she says, there are some preliminary findings. “Looking at 2010 to 2016, the samples that were collected those years, I have 20 individual genotypes,” she says. “Most of those—around 14—came from Pelham Bay Park, which is our most heavily sampled park just because it’s the biggest.” There are 35 identified individual coyotes in all: Most come from parks in the Bronx (Pelham Bay, Riverdale, Van Cortlandt, Ferry Point Park, Pugsley Creek), one sample comes from Inwood, and the rest come from Queens.

According to her DNA analysis, the coyotes are highly related. For example, the sole coyote resident of a small park in Queens—a male the researchers have nicknamed Frankie, who was first spotted in the park in 2009—shares DNA with male coyotes whose scat was collected in Pelham Bay Park and Pugsley Creek (around 16 miles and 18 miles from the park in Queens, respectively). “He is second-order related (shares 25 percent of his DNA) to two male coyotes,” Henger says. “First-order relatedness indicates a parent-offspring or full sibling relationship—we can’t tell if it’s parent/offspring or sibling. Second-order relatedness indicates a half-sibling, an aunt or uncle to a niece or nephew, or a grandparent-grandchild relationship.”

There is a lot of first-order relatedness within parks and across parks, “which makes me think of offspring dispersing to a different park, trying to set up their new territory,” Henger says. “The fact that we’re seeing them moving through the city to get to different parks is a good sign, because it means they are able to move—they’re not getting stuck in this high level of urbanization.” They have high genetic diversity, too, which indicates that outside coyotes are coming in and keeping the gene pool fresh.

These coyotes are hybrids that carry wolf genes, although Nagy and Weckel prefer the term “Northeastern coyote” over the more popular “coywolf” portmanteau. That phrasing “makes it seem very simple, as if the animal you’re talking about is half coyote, half wolf, and it’s not,” Weckel says. But the animals aren’t a subspecies of wolf: According to The New York Times, a recent study confirmed that the gray wolf is the only true wolf species in North America. The “two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA.”

In the future, Henger would like to collaborate with researchers outside of New York City to figure out where the coyotes came from. “My hypothesis,” she says, “is that a lot of these guys came from an initial population that settled in Pelham Bay, probably from Westchester”—more than 20 miles north of Pelham Bay—“and then they’ve been dispersing from there to other parks.” She also plans to use the data she’s compiling to create a landscape model that will help her determine which corridors the coyotes are using to get around. “That would be important in terms of conservation,” she says. “We may want to conserve that area of connectivity from development.”

When Henger is finished with the scat, its journey isn’t over. Next up is an hour-long subway ride to the American Museum of Natural History, where scientists and their interns will process the poop. They start by making what they call scat tea.

Hair, bone, and other prey items isolated from coyote scat in test tubes at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

 
Poop can give us DNA, which shows coyote relatedness—but that’s not all it can tell us. Analyzing the contents of poop also reveals what this new population is eating. Figuring that out falls to Neil Duncan, collections manager of the mammalogy department at AMNH, and four high school students with the museum’s Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP). “They’re spending hours and hours that I don’t always have,” he says. “With four people working, it’s an extra day every week of research that I wouldn’t get to do.”

The students—all of them young women—were not aware they’d be dealing with poop when they signed up for the program, but it didn’t freak them out. “I thought it was cool because it was about coyotes in New York City,” 18-year-old Olivia Asher tells mental_floss when we pop by the museum to take a look at their research. “The unpleasant part doesn’t outweigh the cool part of it.”

And so they've spent the school year donning latex gloves and processing poop. First, they place the scat—each of which has an identifying number that corresponds to a data sheet—in the foot of a nylon stocking. (Asher pulls out a box of L’eggs Everyday Knee Highs. “They can’t be the leg, they have to just be the foot,” she explains; cutting the stockings would fray them and make them difficult to use.) Next, the stocking scat is dunked in a bucket of water, massaged to break up the poop, and “steeped” by placing it in a bucket of water, where it's left to soak overnight, creating the so-called “scat tea.” The next day, they remove the prey matter from the stocking and put it in a sieve to run it under water, which, according to 17-year-old Rita Rozovskiy, “isolates the prey items and eliminates the fecal matrix.” Translation: The poop melts away, leaving just what the coyote ate behind.

The team separates classes of prey items into separate vials—hair in one, bone fragments in another, and so on—numbered to identify which scat it came from. They then try to identify the prey items; to do it, they rely heavily on AMNH’s collection of study skins and skeletons. Looking at the scale (exterior) and medullary (interior) patterns of hair helps them identify some species, while looking at the incisors and molars in the scat helps them ID others. Bone fragments help them narrow down the size class of the species they are looking for. But just one identifier wouldn’t do; they can't declare a prey item identified until they have multiple lines of evidence.

It is difficult, painstaking work. Identifying scale patterns, for example, requires the students to slather nail polish on a slide, drop in a hair, and wait for a moment; after carefully removing the hair, they look at the scale pattern under a microscope and use a guide to figure out what animal it is. Asher spent nearly a month trying to identify a single hair that turned out to be from a coyote. But, according to Duncan, her time wasn't wasted—it was all part of the scientific process. He said that the students asked each other, “Yes, it’s coyote, but do you think it ate a coyote?” The answer: probably not. “Look at the evidence: It’s a single hair,” he says. “It wasn’t a clump of hair. Whether it was play, grooming behavior—who knows.”

The team processed 49 scat samples over the course of the school year, and although their results are preliminary, and by no means complete, so far they’ve found that New York City’s coyotes enjoy a very diverse diet. Mostly, they’re eating small mammals like squirrels, muskrats, meadow voles, and rabbits, which make up 19 percent of what was found in the scat, followed by birds (17 percent) and deer (14 percent; deer was only found in scat collected in Pelham Bay Park, which has a robust deer population). Fruit and seed were found in 13 percent of the scats.

“Surprisingly, trash was not a big portion of the diet, [which] we expected because there’s a lot of trash in New York,” 17-year-old Sandra Lewocki explains. But analysis of diet studies conducted in other urban areas reveals that anthropogenic items aren’t a big part of any urban coyote’s diet. The comparison also revealed that New York City’s coyotes appear to eat more birds than other urban coyotes do.

The team hasn’t found any rats, either, but as Duncan points out, “it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re not in there.” He told the students that, once they positively identified the hair of one species, they should go through all of their samples and pull out similar looking hairs. “So these large numbers of muskrats or squirrels are part of our surveying technique,” he says. “I think rats will come, we just haven’t found any yet.”

Duncan will continue to do prey analysis with Asher—who stayed on after her internship ended last summer—and two new SRMP students. “What’s going to be interesting is, as we find out the diet of these coyotes in Queens, and if they move into Brooklyn and thereon to Long Island, [we’ll see] how the diet is going to differ across these more urban geographic areas,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a significant part of the story.”

Gotham Coyote Project

 

Make no mistake: Though Long Island has not yet been colonized by coyotes, colonization is inevitable. (There is currently one resident in Queens; a family pack that was spotted near LaGuardia Airport this summer was captured and euthanized by Port Authority officials, to public outcry.) Thanks to high birth rates and their incredible ability to adapt to situations and landscapes, attempts to eradicate the animals end in failure. We couldn’t get rid of them if we tried—and Americans have tried.

According to National Geographic, in the 1920s, the Bureau of Biological Survey—which had pretty much gotten rid of wolves—began a campaign to eradicate coyotes using poison. Between 1947 and 1956, the agency killed about 6.5 million coyotes in the West. As Dan Flores, author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, explained, “When they’re persecuted, they tend to abandon the pack strategy and scatter across the landscape in singles and pairs. And the poison campaign was one of the things that kept scattering them across North America.” Normal litter sizes, he said, are five or six pups, but “When their populations are suppressed, their litters get up as high as 12 to 16 pups. You can reduce the numbers of coyotes in a given area by 70 percent but the next summer their population will be back to the original number.”

There are already five coyote breeding sites in the Bronx—again, the only part of New York City connected to mainland New York—which was the easy part. What’s ahead is much harder: They’ll have to traverse train tracks, scamper over bridges, and swim rivers and the Long Island Sound to settle new territory and begin breeding. But it’s just a matter of time until one (or more) of them completes the odyssey. “It’s just a numbers game,” Nagy says. “It’s hard enough for one coyote to make it. Then it needs to find a suitable place to set up territory, and then another coyote has to do [the same thing], and that coyote has to be the opposite sex and find its way to the exact same place that that first coyote went to. So it’s tricky, but it will happen. This is the story that’s been played out across the whole continent.”

When it does happen, the scientists will look back at all the data they’ve gathered to see how things change. “As coyotes eventually make their way into Long Island, we’ll see, presumably, some sort of change in the whole community,” Nagy says.

Take, for example, how the coyotes will affect the red fox population. Foxes eat small rodents that harbor Lyme disease; if the coyotes push the smaller foxes out, will there be more rodents and more Lyme disease? “Queens and Long Island give you a pretty good experimental setup in the field,” Nagy says, “where you can measure all sorts of things before coyotes got there and afterwards and in the future and see what changes.”

Gotham Coyote Project

As the coyotes conquer more and more territory, we’ll have to learn to live alongside them—and educating the public about how to do that falls to Carrero and her colleagues at the Parks Department. “People think they’re dangerous, or that they’re a lot bigger than they are,” Carrero says. “We explain to people that they’re predators, [but] they’re not going to pick a fight they’re not going to win. You explain that they’re maybe 40 pounds at most. You explain that research has been done for stomach content analysis, and most of it is rodents. Once the fear goes away, people usually just want to see one and ask me where they can.”

Some people are surprised when they see a coyote in an urban environment, but others display that very New York attitude: indifference. On a recent call, Carrero supervised the release of a coyote that had been trapped in someone’s backyard. After it was tranquilized and cleared by a vet, Carrero and crew took the coyote to a park for the release, angling the cage toward a wooded area. “With their coloration, they just need to go in 10 yards, and they vanish,” Carrero says. “We pointed him at this beautifully camouflaged forest, and he just went right through a small patch of trees where there was an obvious open area on the other side and ran between the only two groups of people in the park!”

When Carrero went over to see if they had any questions about what had just happened, the people did have one question: Why did she have handcuffs? “That’s the only thing they asked me!” she says, laughing. (Park Rangers are also Special Patrolmen; they’re deputized by the NYPD to make arrests.) “I don’t know if maybe they thought it was a stray dog”—perhaps like she did, all those years ago—“or maybe they’re used to seeing them in the area. But nobody said anything.”

The Gotham Coyote Project has relied on the public’s help to track coyotes. If you think you’ve seen one of these animals, report it here.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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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12 Furry Facts About Red Pandas
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Red pandas have always lived in the shadow of the other, more famous panda. But now it's time to give the little guy its due.

1. THEY HAVE TWO EXTINCT RELATIVES.

Red panda in a tree.
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Currently, red pandas live in the Eastern Himalayas. But the first red panda fossil was found a little bit further afield than that—in the United Kingdom. In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized animal called the Giant Panda (unrelated to the modern giant panda) were discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.

2. THEY'RE VEGETARIAN CARNIVORES.

Red panda eating bamboo.
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It might seem like an oxymoron, but carnivore in this case doesn't mean meat eater. Carnivore is a biological order that includes groups like bears, dogs, and cats, and while these animals are generally carnivores, some are omnivores, and some are vegetarians. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they're descended from the same ancestors as the other carnivores, but they rarely eat anything other than bamboo and a few insects. And while giant pandas eat all of a bamboo plant, red pandas eat only the young leaves. Because this is such a nutritionally poor food source, they need to spend 13 hours a day eating and looking for food and can lose upwards of 15 percent of their body weight in winter.

3. THEY'RE SLIGHTLY BIGGER THAN A DOMESTIC CAT.

Red panda sleeping on a branch.
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But their tails add as much as 18 inches to their length. Red pandas live solitary lives in trees, high up in the mountains, so they wrap those big, bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. (They also use them for balance.)

4. THEY HAVE A FALSE THUMB.

Red panda perched on a log.
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This is another feature (along with diet) that red pandas and giant pandas share. Because both pandas have false thumbs—which is actually an extended wrist bone—it was thought that it must be an adaption to eating bamboo. But the red panda's more carnivorous ancestors had this feature as well. According to a 2006 study, what happened was "one of the most dramatic cases of convergence among vertebrates." Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals faced with similar circumstances evolve to look similar. In this case, the red panda's false thumb evolved to help it climb trees, and only later became adapted for the bamboo diet, while giant pandas evolved this virtually identical feature because of their bamboo diet.

5. THEY'RE ESCAPE ARTISTS.

Red panda climbing across a tree.
iStock

Rusty the red panda had been at the Smithsonian National Zoo for just three weeks when he made a break for it in June 2013. His method of escape? A tree branch that was pushed down over his enclosure's electric fence by heavy rains. The ensuing panda hunt (and endless bad jokes about panda-monium) captivated Twitter (tweeters used the hashtag #findrusty) until he was found in a nearby neighborhood. Soon after his daring escape, Rusty became a father, forcing him to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. But it could have been worse. After a similar escape in Dresden, Germany, the authorities got another red panda down from a tree by using a fire hose to spray it with water. The panda fell 30 feet to the ground, giving it a concussion. (Ultimately, the animal was OK.)

Red pandas have also escaped from zoos in London, Birmingham, and Rotterdam. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums even warn in their official care manual "beware: red pandas are escape artists" [PDF].

6. ONE ESCAPE LED TO SOMETHING CALLED THE RED PANDA EFFECT.

Red panda peeking out from behind some tree branches.
iStock

Sadly, the red panda involved in the 1978 Rotterdam escape was found dead not long after the search for it began. But the event led to a very peculiar psychological observation. Even after the body of the panda was found, more than 100 people reported seeing it, very much alive. These sightings were clearly mistaken; there's no reason to think that multiple red pandas were loose in Rotterdam, and red pandas are distinctive enough that mistaking them for a dog or cat was unlikely. It's believed that people expected to see a red panda, so they saw one, even though there wasn't one there; researchers called it the Red Panda Effect.

7. THERE'S AN INTERNET BROWSER NAMED AFTER THEM.

The Mozilla Firefox logo.
LEON NEAL, AFP/Getty Images

Mozilla's flagship browser, Firefox, means red panda. Originally, Mozilla wanted to name the browser Firebird, but found that another open source project was using that name. Not wanting to upset anyone, they decided to go with Firefox, another name for the red panda. And in a true example of adorableness, in 2010 Mozilla adopted two baby red pandas that had been born at Tennessee's Knoxville Zoo.

8. THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE PANDA—AND YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS WHICH ONE IT IS.

Engraving of a parti-colored bear.
Engraving of a parti-colored bear, from The New Natural History Volume II by Richard Lydekker, 1901.

After the red panda was discovered in the 1820s, it was just called the panda (the origin of the name is controversial, but it probably comes from the Nepali word ponya, meaning "bamboo or plant eating animal"). Forty years later, Europeans found a new animal in China and called it the Parti-Colored bear—because unlike polar bears, black bears, or brown bears it was multi-colored.

9. THERE HAS BEEN A 140-YEAR TAXONOMIC MIX-UP.

A red panda walking toward the camera.
iStock

Prepare to be confused: In the late 19th century, scientists noticed that the parti-colored bear and the (red) panda were very similar. Their jaws were more like each other than they were like any other animal, they lived near each other, they both had false thumbs, and their diets were similar. The decision was made to officially consider the (red) panda as a type of bear.

By the early 20th century, that decision was reversed: Parti-colored bears were declared bears, and (red) pandas were classified as cousins of the raccoon.

Then, in the 1910s, it was decided that parti-colored bears weren't actually bears at all, but were actually large pandas, and also distant relatives of the raccoon. But because parti-colored bears weren't classed as bears anymore, they had to have a name change. They became giant pandas, while the one true panda was renamed the red or lesser panda (to quote a 1920 issue of Popular Science: "Zoologists reverently refer to this rare beast as the "giant panda." Its more popular cognomen is the 'bear-raccoon'").

10. BUT RED PANDAS ARE THEIR OWN THING.

Two red pandas touch noses.
iStock

By the 1980s, genetic evidence indicated that giant pandas actually were a type of bear, and red pandas belonged in their own family, the Ailuridae. They might seem similar, but they're not related.

All of this means that if you're the type of person who rolls their eyes when someone calls a bison a buffalo, or a koala a bear, you need to stop calling the bear a panda and instead refer to it as a "parti-colored bear," the original English name (but if you wanted to call it the bear-raccoon, no one would stop you). Giant pandas are not pandas. There is only one true panda.

11. BUT THIS DOESN'T AFFECT KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Red panda with teeth bared.
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There's still a kung fu panda in the series: Shifu, a red panda.

12. THEY'RE ENDANGERED.

Red panda laying down and sticking his tongue out.
iStock

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Habitat destruction increases the species' chances of extinction.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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