Cats use basic physics to home in on hiding prey

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Credit: Lisa Stirling / Getty Images

Cats have a basic grasp of physics and “cause and effect”, with a Japanese study showing moggies can predict movement based on sound alone.

Prowling in dim light makes feline hearing particularly important, possibly even more so than vision. Researchers at Kyoto University found these adept hunters could identify the presence of prey, or in this case, an inanimate object, without seeing it.

In the journal Animal Cognitionthe team gathered 30 domestic cats – a mix of housecats and residents from cat cafes in Kyoto – for a series of sound-based experiments.

In the presence of each cat, a human participant shook a container, sometimes with an object inside and sometimes empty. The container was then overturned to reveal the object or nothing at all.

In the first phase of the experiment, the sounds were in accordance with the laws of physics – that is, if the container had an object inside, it made noise when shaken; if the container was empty, it was silent.

For the second phase, these rules were overturned – the presence of the object didn’t necessarily result in noise, and sometimes an empty cup emitted a rattle.

The researchers used a special container equipped with a switch-controlled magnet. The object, an iron ball, stuck to the magnet – or not – at the human’s discretion. So sometimes the ball made a noise, sometimes it didn’t; sometimes it fell out when the container was overturned, and sometimes it stayed put.

The researchers judged the cat’s predictions by how long they watched the container, and how long they spent exploring the area once the container was flipped over.

Interestingly, every cat watched the container longer when the sound didn’t match the presence (or absence) of the object.

“This study may be viewed as evidence for cats’ having a rudimentary understanding of gravity,” the paper states, adding that other animals, including tamarin monkeys and dogs, have been shown respond to gravity in past studies, and this may be an innate mammalian ability.

Next, the researchers are keen to uncover how much information cats can predict from hearing an object or animal, such as its quantity, quality, size and identity.

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