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06/13/2013

Secret life of cats exposed by BBC, veterinary college research project

Cat
A cat doing something scientifically interesting. A new research project courtsey of BBC2 Horizon and the U.K. Royal Veterinary College has tracked the secret life of cats. 

 

Isn't science amazing? Sometimes we use science to discover the earliest known primate fossil. Sometimes we use science to search outerspace for evidence of physical mysteries.

And sometimes, if we are the BBC, we use science to unmask the secret lives of cats. Through the magic of science we conjure Mother Nature's deepest secrets to light, like that cats are territorial, and sometimes they eat birds.

Those new insights come courtesy of BBC2's "Horizon" programme, a series that explores "topical scientific issues and their effects for the future." Horizon teamed up with the UK's Royal Veterinary College to bring the world a research project that the British broadcaster is calling "Secret life of the cat: the science of tracking our pets."

While the original study involved 50 felines, the BBC website currently features a multimedia snapshot of 10 animals, complete with data visualizations of the cat's days and video snapshots of important cat moments. 

The ten research subjects are Ginger, Chip, Sooty, Orlando, Hermie, Phoebe, Deebee, Kato, Coco and Rosie. They all live in the village of Shamley Green in Surrey.

The veterinary college researchers modified big-cat tracking technology to equip the pet cats with GPS collars and activity sensors. The most exciting research subjects were outfitted with kitty cams.

The activity sensors were used to make sure the scientists only collected data when the cats were actually moving. That achieved a dual goal: it conserved GPS battery, and it "also saved us from collecting a lot of uninteresting data on sleeping cats," wrote Alan Wilson, one of the veterinary college researcher scientists, who specializes in animal movement.

Let's take Ginger, a haughty-looking ginger tabby who, according to the new research, sometimes fights the neighbour's cat.

An "expert's view" provides readers with this: "Ginger's roaming is pretty average in terms of range or distance from home. However, on one of the days he was tracked he was more active than any of the other cats."

In another segment, Orlando, a second ginger tabby, loses his lunch. Viewers are treated to a cat's perspective of this event, thanks to the camera around Orlando's neck.

Wilson said the research turned out to be fascinating, because we know less about the activities of domestic cats than rare cats that live in the wild.

"We were particularly surprised by how small the ranges of most of the cats were, and how few of them went into the surrounding countryside. They tended to remain within the confines of the village and roamed in those areas. One theory is that their roaming is dictated by the hunt for food - something more easily done in the village. For example, we saw cats going into houses other than their own," he wrote on the BBC website.

Since the filming of the program, the researchers have returned to Shamley Green to collect more data, which will be published in an upcoming scientific paper.

The Horizon television program airs tonight at 9:00 p.m. UK time.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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