Friday 5 May 2023

Every cat counts

 counts is counted. Although I was alive then, I effectively missed the 80s: Madonna, Calvin & Hobbes all passed me by because I was looking at cats, lots of them, with a view to understanding their genetic and geographic distribution. I didn't do a very good job of it; having been oblivious to the presence of Viking cats on the Azores, for one example. When I got my first proper job in NE England, I told the hiring committee that intended to extend my vital research documenting cat coat colours to studying plumage variants of Columba livia the feral pigeon. My plan for that was to take photos of pigeon flocks in parks and squares and count how many were black, red, barred and white spotted. I bought a Nikon SLR camera with a modestly long telephoto lens and read the literature on pigeon genetics - starting with Charles Darwin, who hung out with pigeon fanciers. Several months later, I wrote up my findings and submitted the manuscript to Ibis, the premier ornithological journal. It was quick rejected and I lacked the resilience and ambition to revise it and re-submit: my central failing as a scientist was lack of finish. The reason I chose a SLR snap-shot methodology was because my boss had published a paper on the cats of São Paulo Brazil doing exactly that.

My internet pal Сергей Холин from Vladivostok has more recently taken the technique back to the world of cats specifically those of 青島 Aoshima aka Cat Island in the Japanese Inland Sea. It is called Cat Island because the cats outnumber the permanent residents by ~50:1 and it is a tourist attraction for that reason. Although it's a rather long multi-mode trek to have the chance to feed and pet a bunch of scruffy looking felines. Don't miss the ferry back: there are zero tourist facilities on the island. Сергей obtained three different high quality photos of some of the cats blew them up digitally, numbered each individual and essayed a genetic diagnosis of each cat in the sample. Here's one of those pictures:

It's quite unsettling to be looking at so many cats returning your gaze; inscrutable as zen monks in their orange robes. But at least the buggers stay still. What Сергей showed is an extreme example of founder effect, almost all the cats are either orange or tortoiseshell giving probably the highest frequency (0.58) of the O allele in the world - certainly 2x higher than nearby mainland populations. otoh the frequency of non-agouti [black, to normal folks] is disproportionately low on Aoshima. These discrepancies are surely due to the random genetic make-up of the cats which were imported in the 19thC to get on top of an intolerable infestation of rats.

The last 6 residents are all elderly and the homes, shops and school of the once thriving fishing community [N = 900 in 1945] are quietly decaying for lack of care and attention.

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