A team of Russian scientists have identified a molecule in cat urine that enables them to control mice, thus making them easy prey.
The study was conducted by the AN Severtov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow and led by Dr Vera Voznessenskaya. Their findings reveal that this molecule, which they have shrewdly named L-Felinine, can effectively control the behavior of their favorite prey, mice.
The two major roles that this molecule has on the mice is to reduce their litter and even cause abortions, and to keep modify their reaction to the smell of cat urine.
Normally, when mice smell cat urine, they tend to run and hide, so as to keep safe from their agile predator. However, it seems that if they are exposed to cat urine as younglings, their behavior is modified to the cat’s advantage.
When the baby mice smell the cat urine as they feed from their mother or while they are kept safe by their parents, it seems that the felinine enables them to associate this smell with something positive.
Therefore, when they feel the smell later on, as adults, the mice no longer realize that they are in danger and that they have to run. This provides the cats with an easy meal, because they will not run.
“Because the young mice (less than two weeks old) are being fed milk while being exposed to the odor, they experience positive reinforcement. So they don’t escape the cats when exposed to cat odor later on.” explains Dr. Voznessenskaya.
What proved to be rather curious was the fact that the felinine was proven to successfully affect the behavior of the mice, but not their hormonal response. It seems that their body is able to detect a threat in the smell of cat urine, as stress hormone levels increases significantly. The mind however does not seem to interpret this correctly, since the mice show no intention of getting out of the way of the cats.
The Russian scientists speculate that the cats can use this protein not only to simplify their hunt, but to keep the mouse population in their habitat at the level they require it to be. Since the felinine was shown to reduce the size of the mouse litter, there is a strong link between the cat population and the evolution of the mouse population around them.
The findings of this amazing study were presented by the Russian team at the Society for Experimental Biology 2015 conference, that was held in Prague. They will most likely continue their research on the matter, in order to better understand the consequences that this molecule has on the cat and mouse habitat.
There seems to be extensive research conducted on how cats affect the behavior of those around them. The felinine molecule in cat urine is actually not the only thing working to the cat’s advantage in this mouse-cat ancient war.
Scientists have proven that mice that are infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii are actually attracted to the smell of cat urine. Furthermore, they seem to be unafraid of the cats and so, they will not show any defense mechanisms. Also, the infected mice will show an increased tendency to explore the grounds of their habitat, which again puts them at risk.
These three effects put together will draw the mice out of their hiding places in order to explore. Then, in their paths, the mice will be attracted by the places where the cats have marked their territories with their urine and when the mice meet the cat, they would much rather walk towards it, rather than run away from it. Obviously, this situation leads to the mice being eaten by the cat.
This type of behavior is called Parasite Induced Trophic Transmission (PITT) and it enables the Toxoplasma parasite to get the intermediate host that it inhabits (the mouse) closer towards its definitive host (the cat), so that transmission can occur. The parasite’s intermediate stage in the mouse requires that the mouse be eaten by the cat, so as to get to its target organs in the cat, reach adulthood and complete its life cycle.
Scientists are currently researching the effects that the Toxoplasma parasite has on humans and the extent of the PITT phenomenon in relation to people.
Cats and mice are frequently obligated to share the same environment, in order to live around humans. But cats seem to have a clear upper hand in this situation, as they are the the secret puppeteers that control the behavior of the mouse population around them and maybe much more than that.
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