Chew and roll: How cats make the most of their high levels of catnip

Cats are often a mystery, even to those who know them best. Why do they sleep so much? Why do they want your full attention one minute, not the next? How can they find their way backside Home page after being trapped miles away for five? Writer Haruki Murakami, who used to include cats in his novels and essays admission don’t know why he did it; a cat “naturally came in,” he said.

Another mystery: Why do cats love catnip? When exposed to plants of the mint family, majority domestic cats will lick it, rub it, chew it, and roll around in it. They are filled with euphoria, realizing everything. They also grow wild on other plants, especially silver vine, which is not closely related to catnip but causes a similar response from cats, including big cats such as leopars. spots and tigers.

For years, this behavior was just another cat-related mystery. But one new researchpublished Tuesday in the journal iScience, suggests that the response to catnip and silver vine could be explained by bugs banishment effect of iridoids, chemicals in plants that produce high

The researchers, led by Masao Miyazaki, an animal behavior scientist at Iwate University in Japan, found that the amount of these iridoids secreted by plants increased by more than 2,000 percent when the plants were infected with cats. destructive. So perhaps the cat’s height offers an evolutionary advantage: stopping blood-sucking insects in the bay.

Kristyn Vitale, a cat behavior expert at Unity University who was not involved in the study, noted that the study builds on strong previous research findings. Last year, the same lab published a study showing that cats will do their best to put on an iridoid like DEET, whether rolling on chemicals or by reaching up to butt them on the cheek. “This suggests that cats may benefit from introducing compounds into their bodies,” says Dr. Vitale.

Carlo Siracusa, an animal behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania who was also not involved in the study, concurs. “The evidence shows that they want to impregnate their bodies with smell,” he said. However, he adds, “remember that a large number of cats do not exhibit this behavior. So why were they chosen this way? “

As an evolutionary adaptation, iridoids repel bugs can do more to protect plants from herbivores than to help cats avoid bug bites. Plants often release stimulants when damaged, which help repel an attacker, and they release other chemicals that are dangerous to those around them. “Plants are masters of chemical warfare,” said Marco Gallio, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University who was not involved in the new study.

Last year, Dr. Gallio and his colleagues publish a report linked the main bug repellant in catnip, nepetalactone, to an irritant receptor protein in mosquitoes and related insects. The receptor, also found in humans and cats, can be activated by tear gas. But Dr. Gallio found that while nepetalactone had no negative effects on humans and caused cats to experience ecstasy contractions, it did activate this particular receptor (called TRPA1) in many insects. – an added bonus for cats rolling in the potion of their choice.

In their most recent study, Dr. Miyazaki and his colleagues measured the chemical composition of the air directly on the leaves – both intact and damaged – of catnip and silver vine. They then measured the iridoid levels in the leaves themselves. They found that the cat-bitten tiger tree leaves secreted at least 20 times more nepetalactone than the intact leaves, while the damaged silver vine leaves released at least eight times the same amount of iridoid as the intact leaves. Cats’ interactions with silver vine also changed the composition of the plant’s bug-repelling cocktail, making it even more potent.

After rubbing her face and body into the plants, the cat is sure to be coated with a powerful coat of Pest Begone.

This finding, combined with previous research by Dr. Miyazaki and his team, supports emerging claims that at least part of the benefits of cat fever are deterring mosquitoes and flies. Such behavior, known as “self-anointing,” would not be the first of its kind in the animal kingdom. Known Mexican Spider Monkeys smear themselves with different types of leaves, possibly for social or sexual purposes, and common porcupines rub poison on their thorns.

However, many questions remain to be answered, including why only cats seem to exhibit euphoric responses to catnip and silver vine, and why only some of these cats do. so. Dr. Gallio, while enthusiastic about the new research, took a cautious approach. “What do I know?” he say. “I wasn’t there to watch evolution happen.”

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