This is the final part of my interview with Mike. I am very happy to have a conversation with him. I hope anyone who is reading these posts inspired by them. I am very happy that Mike and his team are helping animals to survive and help us to understand them.
BP: How does your project help animal conservation?
Mike: We need to collect samples from Wildcats. It’s difficult to know where these wild populations are located and if they interbreed with domestic cats. With conservation it’s being able to find these populations of cats that haven’t had any interbreeding with domestic cats.
So, that’s fair thing to do now with different locations having mixture of domestic cats and wild cats, they can interbreed and share genes.
Other than that we are looking to do more studies with different species of cats that live in the jungle or live in different regions of the world. It is necessary to conserve these areas in order to study their behavior to collect the genetic samples we need.
BP: Poaching, illegal hunting and trade of wild animals to circuses are threatening their existence. Is it possible to recreate extinct species?
Mike: That maybe not possible right now but it’s something that different conservation organizations and zoos are interested in. It is being able to preserve their samples, so that we have access to DNA even if the animals become endangered or unfortunately extinct, it’s useful to have resource and their DNA because we don’t really know what will be possible in the future. But I think at this point there is not really a lot of effort in doing that sort of testing but more of collecting the samples and preserving them.
Facilities that are well-funded having samples. I was in San Diego and saw large collection of DNA samples from animals all over the world. They are frozen in liquid nitrogen so it’s a way to collect samples just in case we need these resources in the future.
BP: How many genes do cats and humans share?
Mike: We only find cats themselves have about 20,000 genes. This is a similar number what humans have, so most mammals have about the same numbers of genes. We don’t see a lot of variation in number.
We can analyze similarities between genes in humans, between cats and humans, within these genes. For the analysis that we did and we selected 10,000 that were shared between human and cat and cow and dog. As the genomes improve, we will be able to compare more genes. But again it’s all about improving the the genomes and then we’ll have a better understanding at the genes and what they look like.
BP: What do you mean by improving genome?
Mike: A lot of the time, the genome has gaps or pieces missing. We need to understand what’s in those missing regions. So we need to work to fill in those gaps and understand if any genes are in those gaps or what might underlie those regions are unknown at this point.
BP: Could you tell us about your findings related to pheromones and odor detection capabilities of cats? Aren’t they same?
Mike: They are in a way. Olfactory receptors are receptors in our noses that can detect odorants which are small molecules in the air. Other mammals, besides most the primates can detect pheromones with these other receptors, called vomeronasal receptors. In the paper we call those V1R receptors, they are from certain different different gene family than
the olfactory receptors. The pheromones are larger, heavier molecules so they are a little different than what we call odorants, which are small molecules that olfactory receptors detect . The pheromones are more likely to be used for determining reproductive status and scent marking an area with that if an animal’s territorial. For instance they would use pheromones to mark trees and certain regions and their territory to keep other animals out that might try to compete for the resources within that territory.
So what we did is, we looked at the olfactory receptors in dogs and we look at them in cats.
We noticed that cats had fewer olfactories than dogs. And then we looked at the vomeronasal receptors in cats and we found that they have more vomeronasal receptors than dogs. So, we concluded that cats rely more on pheromones for their socio reproductive behaviors and dogs are relying more on smell.
BP: Are pheromones unique to individual cats?
BP: How is cat genome project related to forensic science?
Mike: We use skeletal material from cats to determine when cats became domesticated. Someone here at my university went to am China to work with a group of scientists to uncover some archaeological sites where humans were growing food, also any burial sites. They found cat remains in sites. When they dated the sites, they found them to be about five thousand years old. So we know that these populations were living with domestic cats around five thousand years ago. So that shows us sort of the relationship between humans and domestic cats. Obviously, the archaeology and the analysis of the skeletal material is important for coming up at that time frame when human populations were domesticating animals.
BP: We have talked about the evolution of feline sensory systems; hearing, smelling, vision. What does genome say about psychological evolution of the cats, like do we know they have empathy?
Mike: It’s a good question but it’s something that we can’t really answer with looking at genetics. We can try to come up a different hypotheses about the genes because we know the function of these genes, we know what they might be involved in but to make a conclusion about the behavior becomes a lot more tricky. Because we don’t really know what happens in between, from that protein being formed all the way to have an animal behave; says a lot about processes that would be involved with cells and tissues and the brain that we don’t really understand just yet. So it’s hard to say anything about behavior. We can speculate, you can guess, but I think I it’ll take a lot more study to understand how genes influence behavior especially in an animal like like a cat.
BP: According to that, there could also be a broader explanation about pheromones other than reproductive functionality, since we can measure reproductive results physically however not other social interactions that can be results of pheromones.
Mike: Yes, I think that’s correct. I think we can measure the interaction between a chemical and receptor in some tissue and determine how it might be detected by an animal. But things like why an animal is less fearful of another mammal becomes a little more complicated.Because you can’t measure all the receptors that are interacting in the brain, the way you could with these odorants, that would interact with a single receptor within a specific tissue behind the nose.
BP: In this project, are you working with ethologists?
Mike: I was trained as an ethologist with primates. I’ve studied primates in South America. I looked at the way they use color vision to detect food and how they interact with each other. With the cat research, we’re mostly working with geneticists, we don’t work with a lot people that study cat behavior. We have colleagues that are interested in cat behavior but again most the work that our colleagues are interested in, is disease oriented, because they work at veterinarian schools .
BP: Do cats have diseases like Down Syndrome?
Mike: That’s a good question, I am not sure. I think they have chromosomal diseases that would be similar to that mechanism involved with a trisomia and chromosome 21 so I assume most mammals would have similar sorts of diseases, ,result from incomplete meiosis and genetic diseases during before development, before conception.
BP: How many hereditary diseases do cats have?
Mike:There’s dozens and dozens that these different labs working on. Right now we are involved in projects that are looking at some kidney diseases and some retinal diseases that cause blindness. But I’m not a veterinarian I’m not really sure exactly how many diseases on that list but but I know there have to be dozens and dozens. That might be a question a vet to answer.
BP:EU is renewing Animal Health Law and it states that stray cats and dogs that are abandoned by their parents are wild animals, too. Is this scientifically true? What is the difference between a wild and domesticated animal?
Mike: I mean that it’s tricky to say. There’s no set definition I think for what makes an animal domesticated. With different animals, you have different reasons why they might have been domesticated. But I would consider an animal that was born within a domestic population and even if it wasn’t living with people, it would still be considered either feral or domesticated. I don’t think I’d call it wild, because it it was not from a wild population, it is from a domesticated population.
BP: There are lots of animals like cheetahs, leopards, tigers that are living with people, wearing collars. Are they domesticated?
Mike: I would call them trained. I think you can train any animal to do things. You can trainwhales and wild animals. I wouldn’t call them domesticated. I think a population of animals would need to be domesticated, an individual animal would be trained, that’s sort of the difference to see. You can domesticate a population of animals, you’d need to train an individual animal for it to become tame around humans.
BP: Why don’t they attack to their trainers? I am sure that this training is result of negative reinforcement. Dogs are tamed, they obey people since they are domesticated and can get hurt. People can be harmful for them. But a lion, tiger if not too little, should have a chance to escape or not to obey.
Mike: I agree with you. Even some dogs have different behavior around humans. Some dogs are more aggressive. I know people that had been bitten by house cats and dogs. It’s hard to figure out why. I think there are different behaviors for each animal, making animal unique. So the ones that are trained, especially the wild animals that are trained, are more calm around people most likely to attack. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be kept and trained.