Stacey Tecot, University of Arizona
Stacey Tecot, University of Arizona

Scientists Use Facial Recognition Software to Identify Wild Lemurs

Stacey Tecot, University of Arizona
Stacey Tecot, University of Arizona

The same technology used to nab criminals may help keep endangered lemurs roaming free. The new LemurFaceID program, described this week in the journal BMC Zoology, offers a non-invasive way for scientists to track individual lemurs in the wild.

We can’t protect endangered species unless we understand their lives, co-author Stacey Tecot of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “Studying lemur individuals and populations over long periods of time provides crucial data on how long individuals live in the wild, how frequently they reproduce, as well as rates of infant and juvenile mortality and ultimately population growth and decline.”

But figuring these things out can be tricky for researchers and stressful for wild animals, who don’t particularly enjoy being caught and tagged, collared, or swabbed.

So conservationists have begun exploring more hands-off techniques, including facial-recognition software. Software developers have already applied the technology to African lions and right whales with some success. Biometrics expert and co-author Anil Jain of Michigan State University suspected it might work even better with lemurs, whose facial features are as varied as those of human beings.

To start, Jain and his colleagues compiled 462 images of 80 different red-bellied lemurs* from Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park and the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, as well as 190 images of other lemur species. They standardized the photo formats, then created a program that would measure the proportions and features of the lemurs’ faces, thus devising a unique visual profile of each individual.

Crouse et al. 2017. BMC Zoology

Initial tests of the LemurFaceID program were astoundingly successful, quickly matching an image to the right lemur with 98.7 percent accuracy. The researchers believe the software could be easily adapted to identify other primates, bears, red pandas, raccoons, and sloths.

"Facial recognition technology has the potential to help safeguard our society," Jain said. "Adapting it to help save endangered species is one of its most inspiring uses."

*One of the lemurs is named Avery. That’s not important to this story, but we thought you’d want to know.

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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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 in 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.

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