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Domestic cats have smaller brains than their wild ancestors: study

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Domestic cats have smaller brains than their wild ancestors: study

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It’s been theorized for years by scientists and cat owners, but a new study seems to confirm it: Cats now have fewer brains than they used to when they were feral.

According to a new study, domestic cats have smaller brains than their wild cat ancestors, confirming older studies and opening up new insights into how domestication affects animals.

The new study, published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, sought to replicate older research from the 1960s and 1970s on brain size in cats to see if these results would still be accurate if evaluated with the current knowledge.

“Brain size comparisons are often based on old and inaccessible literature and in some cases have drawn comparisons between domesticated animals and wild species that are no longer considered to represent the true progenitor species of the domesticated species. in question,” the study said to explain the need. to try to recreate these faulty studies.

Domestication has changed animals such as cats and dogs in many ways, some of them obvious, such as physical characteristics. Scientists also suspect that pets have smaller brains.

To try to avoid the pitfalls of previous researchers, this study compared the skulls of modern domestic cats to the North African wildcat, a species known to be their direct ancestor, as well as the skulls of hybrid cats from domestic cats. . mate with European wildcats.

They examined a total of 103 skulls from the National Museums of Scotland. The researchers measured the skulls and also filled them with glass beads to measure the cranial volume.

Domestic cats had the smallest cranial volume of any skull they looked at.

The researchers also investigated whether there had been a marked change in snout length, but found that the primary predictor of snout length was overall body size rather than a connection to domestication.

Why the brains of cats have shrunk in the process of thousands of years of domestication is still unclear. Many scientists have offered different theories, including that it is a trade-off between brain size and other tissues, or that it could be related to thyroid hormone.

When we talk about cats and domestication, some refer to cats as only semi-domesticated due to the fact that it was considered an advantage for cats to ally with humans at the very beginning of the domestication process in due to the proximity of humans to food. like rats.

“Cats may not have been as ‘useful’ to humans as dogs or horses, but their usefulness in protecting grain crops from rodents is often cited as a major driver of their domestication,” says the study, adding that although cats played a role in their own domestication, they are no less domesticated than dogs.

The researchers added that other studies have shown that when a domesticated animal becomes feral, we don’t see the reverse with increased brain volume, even with animals such as dingoes in Australia, which have become feral. thousands of years ago.

“Thus, the reduction in brain volume due to domestication appears to be a permanent change that is not reversed by feralization, even after many generations,” the study says.

The researchers acknowledged that when we look at domestic animals, there will also be differences between breeds that can add a wrinkle to the data.

But it does provide a starting point for further research.

“In the context of domestication research, it is crucial to replicate these older studies because they are the basis for many currently debated hypotheses,” explained first author Raffaela Lesch in a blog post about the research.

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