All posts by Barb Beier

I am writing a series of short ebooks about cat evolution, and use these blog posts and those at 50FactsAboutCats.wordpress.com to help me get it in shape. Any feedback would be welcome. Unfortunately, for the moment, for reasons having to do with stalking, I also need to say that no one is authorized to represent me or speak for me, even if they claim to have or actually do have a family connection.

Texting the Eclipse

Wednesday, August 16, 2017, 9:08 a.m.:  This is one of those mornings that’s nice but quiet, the sort of day you remember as typical when you think back on a place. It’s a good one to use as a baseline for the unusual morning coming up next week.

Let’s see.  The work traffic has been gone for a little while.  The Sun is currently tangled up in the branches of Andre the Cedar and throwing pretty shadows from the fence line saplings and bushes about halfway across the yard.

There’s some construction going on nearby, judging by the motor sounds, but it’s not loud.  Various stealthy sounds show that the animals aren’t asleep yet.  I don’t recognize any of the bird sounds except a mourning dove and a chickadee.

The temperature is quite comfortable indoors and out.  The reason for that, and the reason why we’re not crisping in solar radiation (as we would be on the Moon), is probably the same reason why the sky – a dark, clear, beautiful blue just an hour or so ago – has gone all white and light-diffusive: water vapor.

It could be wildfire smoke, I know, but it has more of a blue hue to it.  That’s how the usual atmospheric gases scatter sunlight.

As I understand it, vaporized H2O is the biggest greenhouse gas of all, and it’s that greenhouse effect from all the gases that protects us by keeping just enough solar warmth in our atmosphere to provide a decent living space for all sorts of Earth life.

And “just enough” has been a different quantity down through geologic time.  That’s led to some incredible swings in climate, even though the same Sun powers the heat engine behind it all.

You can go a lot of different ways with that statement.  What I’m trying to say here is that our lives, our Mother Earth, and the Sun have many intimate connections.  And in just under five days from now, per NASA, the most powerful member of that trinity is going to fade away.

Intellectually, it’s fun.  Bun I wonder what it will feel like, deep inside.

 


Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 7:36 a.m.:  To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, the sun rises in the east.

Well, it did so a little over an hour ago and is now high enough in the sky to be above all those fence-line trees and shrubs as well as out from behind Andre the Cedar’s trunk (but below the lowest branches – seriously, this tree is gigantic).

I don’t really need to know where the sun rises – it’s enough to know where the bus stops are, and how to get out onto the main drag from here.  You know, the usual modern location clues.

But it’s good to have this natural confirmation that, yes, the street on one side of the house runs east-west, while the other is a north-south route.  It puts you on the map and equal to the mapmaker who put a big “N” on the original drawing.

And, of course, it’s also practical if you happen to be piloting a helicarrier that, for some reason, isn’t breaking the sound barrier plunging straight down after losing power.

Or if you’re piloting any of the LA-Seattle-Vancouver flights that constantly leave contrails overhead whenever the weather conditions are right.

Or just quacking along piloting a flock of Canada geese on spring and autumn migration (though I’ve heard a magnetism sense is involved in this, too).

The sun’s direction probably even helps guide those small critters, looking for a meal in the shrubs, that the pit bull is currently listening to with ears perked up and back legs ready to launch a charge. (She never catches them, but it’s good exercise.)

And next Monday, for an hour or two, that light in the sky will fade away into darkness . . .

Eclipse weather forecast:  Mostly sunny, high around 81.

Almost directly overhead right now is the Moon, a little less than half full.  I’m going back to my childhood habit of capitalizing the names of both of these celestrial orbs.


Monday, August 14, 2017, 10:38 a.m.:  It’s a fairly sunny day, with high stratus clouds showing patches of faint blue in between just to prove that they are clouds, not Canadian wildfire smoke.

The marine air from the Pacific is keeping that smoke away from us in the current weather pattern.

To set the scene for next Monday’s eclipse, the backyard I’ll be watching it from is large, squarish, and fenced off with sturdy wire mesh.

The fence must be sturdy (and high) because we are on the outskirts of Corvallis – a college town surrounded by rural hills and fields – and there are deer in the neighborhood that aren’t afraid to approach houses and sheds.

That’s outside the yard.

Inside the yard with me is a beautiful blue Staffordshire pit bull who has been owned and trained with loving firmness, with corresponding good results.  There are neighborhood cats and other pets nearby, though, so it is good to have a sturdy fence to keep her territory clearly marked out for her and for them.

We’re great friends – she hasn’t any idea that I’m writing about cats.

This yard is attached to a good-sized one-story house that’s almost as old as I am, where I live with two roommates.  Housing prices are insane here and most students live this way, so it’s appropriate to mention that I’m in my sixties, one of the roommates is in his fifties and the other in his thirties.

Apart from the somewhat advanced ages, though, I’d say we’re a typical bunch of Corvallis renters.  I’m retired and can work at home, but the other two have full-time jobs.

So it’s me and “the pup,” as the four-year-old pit bull is called, and next Monday we’ll probably be sitting here pretty much as we are now.  The pup is on her bed out on the step next to the open door, while I’m at the table near the open door, observing and typing.

I’ve only been at this address for a month and a half, but I’ve been in this part of Oregon since 2014.  I hail from the Northeast – New England and upstate New York – where there are cedar and maple trees . . . but the cedars are shrubs or small swamp dwellers, unlike the giant about 15 feet away from me now that dominates and shares the yard with an enormous maple that would garner a lot of attention if it wasn’t so close to Andre the Cedar.

Together, the two giants shade the yard nicely, and our grass stayed green enough not to need watering during the recent hot spell.  Along with a ragged line of bushes and saplings along the back fence, they support lots of birds, squirrels, and probably other wildlife.

I’m not an outdoorswoman and can’t identify all those animals, but I’m familiar with their noise patterns and expect things to quiet down during the eclipse darkness.

Around mid-morning, things are usually fairly quiet, but you do hear individuals moving around and birds occasionally call to one another.

There may be a change in human noise already.  I get up early and love to sit outside with coffee.  Going-to-work traffic during summer in this college-town neighborhood seems to peak around 7-8 a.m., and then again around 9 briefly, but this morning, for the first time since I’ve been here, it kept rumbling straight through.  Seemed a little louder, too.

Could be more people in town to prepare for this weekend and next Monday.

Let’s see.  That’s about it.  There are neighboring houses and yards all around, and a development, but they’re either without students just now or their people are all at work/day care.  You see a few hikers bicyclists or walkers during the day over by the complex wall, where there is a nice public sidewalk/path, but it’s pretty deserted here except on weekends.

That could change next week, though – I’ve read that OSU is renting its dorm rooms for the eclipse, and even two months ago people were advertising for an eclipse room on Craigslist.  Surely some homeowners in this neighborhood have gotten in on the eclipse tourism opportunity.

Eclipse weather report: Today, the National Weather Service has only forecast out to the 20th, the day before the eclipse, but that is expected to be mostly sunny.  (Of course, no forecast beyond a day or so can be counted on.)


It’s raining this morning, Sunday, August 13, 2017.  What that has to do with the solar eclipse, eight days from now, will become clear in a little while.

In case you have been out of circulation recently, on August 21st the Solar System has arranged to send this eclipse’s path of totality across one of our planet’s biggest media centers for the first time since 1979.

And if you live outside the US, you may have heard that the eclipse is also coming to Canada, the Caribbean, the countries of Central America, Greenland, the UK, Iceland and most other Atlantic island nations, as well as parts of South America, Africa, Europe, and Russia.

Path of eclipse trimmed
Eclipse map/figure/table/predictions courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, from eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov.

But, to no one’s surprise, we Americans are taking it very personally.

Indeed, I’m going to call it the Oregon eclipse from now on, both because the first totality on land will happen here and because I live here, in Corvallis.

But I won’t forget that my experiencing temporary darkness next Monday is a coincidence, not an award for personal excellence.  I didn’t even have anything to do with the Apollo missions (although the first petrological thin section I ever saw in school was from a lunar rock).

It’s also not a curse or punishment, which must be how most people took it in preindustrial days.

You see, I’ve been through an eclipse before – when and where I forget, but it was out on the fringes of the shadow.  Even so, when the light faded a little bit in midday, insect and bird sounds in the back yard faltered and the nature/human connection deep within that is part of everybody’s hard wiring alerted me that something unusual and potentially dangerous was happening.

Intellectually I knew what it was, but even that miniscule fading of the light felt wrong.

A solar eclipse really has nothing to do with hoopla, although that’s fun.  It is something very primal.

So I thought about live-blogging the eclipse from my back yard, as I’m planning to avoid the crowds at Oregon State University (this coincides with their 150th anniversary celebration and eclipse-related events are absolutely wild over there).

But what can you say that isn’t obvious a week ahead of time?  “The light is fading; oops, there it goes . . . ”

Then, this morning I got up, opened up the back door, and saw it was raining.

If you’re not familiar with the Pacific Northwest and have only heard that it rains all the time up here, you won’t understand how delightful the sight and smell and sound of that drizzle was this morning.

We have a “Mediterranean climate.”  Sure, it rains a lot in winter, but summers are almost rain-free.

People switch over to Seasonal Affective Delight around May, and on this side of the Cascades, there is a conifer rainforest. (Evergreens can handle the summer drought better than broad-leaf trees.)

But it hasn’t been delightful lately.  We’ve been on a really long dry stretch, with three-digit temps at times and the sky shrouded with smoke from local and Canadian wildfires.

So today’s rainy drizzle feels wonderful.

It’s a lifesaver for the plants in the back yard, too.  The lawn is greening up, but there is still a crackling sound when raindrops hit those desiccated maple and shrubbery leaves.

This little bit of water won’t help much, but it can carry them a little farther toward October or November, when the really heavy rain begins.

And as I was thinking about all this and sipping that wonderful first morning cup of coffee, I saw how to live-blog the eclipse.  It should be in text, not pictures.

There is going to be image overload of this eclipse anyway. More importantly, only words can reach that inner connection between nature and human being that even a partial eclipse can upset.

We Oregonians will be among the first people on land to go dark.  That’s life and a 2017 astronomical coincidence. Anyone can experience it by just sitting here.  However, it is our privilege also to be able to send early confirmation to others in the path of darkness that the light does return.

I’m a Theravadan Buddhist, so light and dark alike are just conditioned things to me, but as a human being I understand this gut response to the loss of sunlight.  It’s the biggest human impact of a solar eclipse and the one that’s easiest to overlook in a technological world.

Starting tomorrow, then, just to make the back yard familiar to readers, I’ll blog a bit here, adding from the top, about what it’s like between the hours of roughly 9 and 11 a.m. PDT, which is when the drama will happen on the 21st.

There will be no images.  This eclipse is being texted.

Featured image of eclipse path in Oregon is from NASA, slightly modified by me.

My New Blog, “50 Facts About Cats”

I’ve started a blog called “50 Facts About Cats” to help me focus and also to promote the books as each takes shape.  Just posted the last of the first facts for each category: wild cats, big cats, sabertoothed cats, house cats, and fancy-cats.

So far, there are only five facts up, but I’m trying to do at least one fact a day.

The books, of course, will be in a series of 50 facts each, offered separately and in a bundle.

The fate of Robin Huntingdon

For now, I’m going to leave this Robin Huntingdon blog as it is, making occasional posts and book updates.

I’m thinking about making it a general platform for a variety of science writers in the future, if the cat writing goes well for me.  Time will tell.

The origin of the name Robin Huntingdon

By the way, did you ever wonder about this (since my name is Barb Beier)?

It’s based on my favorite Douglas Fairbanks silent movie!  Not science, but a creative fleshing out of the old Robin Hood legend.

Here’s Doug as Robin Hood (the former Earl of Huntingdon):

 

Book Photo: Domestic Cat Lineage

This will be in 50 Facts About Domestic Cats and Where They Come From:

Felis lineage
Clockwise from upper right: Sand cat, jungle cat, black-footed cat, and African wildcat (F. s. lybica). It’s easy to see which one that tabby domestic cat in the middle is descended from!

 

Photo credits:

Sand cat:  Tim Vickers. Public domain.

Jungle cat:  Artemy Voikhansky.  CC BY-SA 4.0.

Black-footed cat:  Zbyszko.  GNU Free Documentation License.

African wildcat:  Bernard DuPont from France.  CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tabby cat (center):  Alvesgaspar.  CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Feline Ducklings?

I found this lovely video per this source while researching why some animals, including cats, are born blind and deaf (a/k/a altricial), while others, including ducks, are able to move and do other life tasks at birth (a/k/a precocial).


Mama Cat is hardwired to treat her “children” as if they are helpless, so she keeps trying to get the ducklings into the chow line.  My favorite moment is when she finally gives up and just stares at them perplexed – we’ve all been there for one reason or another, Kitty!

Fortunately, it all works out at the end.  Good thing for the kittens that ducklings are light and you can get a little air through their feathers!

10 Common Misperceptions About Fossil Cats and Where They Come From

The evolution of cats?

As far as I’m concerned, Life, the Universe, and Everything appeared just so this young lion could get that much satisfaction from a green rubber ball. You’re welcome, Leo.

We’re done here . . .

Wait. Why pass up such a fascinating topic?

It may take a PhD to cover every detail of where cats come from and where they might be going, but some of the most interesting highlights aren’t at all hard to understand.

Let’s check out ten common misconceptions about fossil cats and how they turned into the modern cat family Felidae.

To start off, most people think that . . .

 

Chillin

10. Dogs and cats are unrelated.

Cats and dogs work hard to keep this misconception going, but they’re actually “kissing cousins.” Well, sort of.

Not much hard evidence of the carnivoran family tree has survived the last sixty-six million years of geologic activity, but paleontologists still comb through fossil beds, searching for the last common ancestor of dogs and cats.

There must have been a hungry little mammal – they were all little back then (Rose) – that either survived the K/T extinction or developed very soon afterwards, during the first epoch of the Age of Mammals – the Paleocene. (Benton and others, page 66; Fox and others; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds, 2012)

How do the boffins know that?

From cat and dog teeth, specifically, certain upper and lower cheek teeth that fit together like scissors blades.

They’re called carnassials, after the French word for “carnivorous.”

Carnassials are why Fluffy rarely takes food from your hand. The cat has to use its cheek teeth on food.

Its impressive fangs and incisors are specialized murder tools, as we’ll see in #6 later.

Carnassials
Carnassials of a: (A) bear; (B) leopard; (C) dog; and (D) badger.

As you can see, cats and dogs aren’t the only ones with carnassials. All members of the biological order Carnivora have them. (Revell)

It’s always the same teeth, too – the last premolar on the upper jaw and the first molar on the lower jaw. (University of California Museum of Paleontology)

This means that all carnivorans inherited their carnassials from the same ancestor.

That’s the K/T-surviving and/or fast-evolving animal paleontologists would love to identify in the geologic record.

Now, the next misconception is something that every zoo visitor and safari adventurer takes for granted. Scientists once thought it was true, too.

 

Lion and hyena

9. Hyenas and the big cats are unrelated.

Not surprisingly, wildlife biologists used to classify hyenas as caniforms. (World Heritage Encyclopedia) That’s science-speak for “dog-like.”

Today’s caniforms include (but aren’t limited to) dogs, wolves, foxes, skunks, bears, weasels, badgers, wolverines, raccoons, and . . . walruses?

Yes, and otters and seals, too. Not killer whales, though. (Heske)

Hyenas were moved out of the group when genetic testing showed that they are really feliforms, though it isn’t clear exactly how they fit in with the rest of the “cat-like” carnivorans. (Barycka)

Feliforms include families you don’t usually think of as related to cats until you see them all together. Here are modern representatives of the whole feliform group (Heske):

Feliformia-480x270
Feliforms, going clockwise: Yellow mongooses (“Herpestidae”), a genetta (“Viverridae”), a hyena (“Hyaenidae”), a fossa (“Eupleridae”), an African palm civet (“Nandinia”), and Fluffy.

OK, the hyena still seems strange there, but molecular analyses don’t lie.

By the way, meerkatts are in the mongoose family. They are smart, but cheetahs are smarter.

Since paleontologists are still looking for the last common ancestor of dogs and cats, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that no one knows for sure when these two groups went their separate ways.

The oldest known caniform and feliform fossils go back to the Eocene – the second epoch of the Age of Mammals. However, molecular studies suggest that the big break may have happened long before then. (Benton and others; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds, 2012; University of Edinburgh)

The exact date hasn’t been pinned down yet. Some researchers think . . . Uh-oh. Let’s move on – something really horrible has just appeared in the tree branches over your head . . . act casual and don’t turn your back on it.

 

Smilodon_californicus_saber-toothed_tiger_(La_Brea_Asphalt,_Upper_Pleistocene;_Rancho_La_Brea_tar_pits,_Los_Angeles,_southern_California,_USA)_2_(15256732527)
Smilodon fatalis.

Continue reading 10 Common Misperceptions About Fossil Cats and Where They Come From

Housecats and Wildcats (Fluffy and Silvester)

Ever wondered if different kinds of housecat – like a tabby and a Persian, or street cats and purebreds – are different species?

Biologists say that these animals all have the same formal last name (for species or subspecies) – catus.

So it’s all one group despite appearances or lifestyle.

The biologists then politely excuse themselves and get back to work, because the real challenge is telling housecats and wildcats apart, and they’re working under a wildcat conservation deadline.

What’s a wildcat?

Well, it’s not that beautiful animal at the top of this post. That is a housecat – a pedigreed Norwegian forest cat, in fact. It’s a catus.

Here’s a wildcat, photographed in a German national forest:

800px-European_Wildcat_Nationalpark_Bayerischer_Wald_02
It won’t follow you home, no matter how friendly and gentle you are. European wildcats are mostly untameable. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

The resemblance between these two particular cats is eerie!

Fluffy the Housecat and Silvester the Wildcat don’t always look that much alike. Cat fanciers have worked hard to maintain a wildcat appearance in the Norwegian fancy-breed.

It’s quite an achievement. The breeders are limited to the human time scale, while European wildcats have had hundreds of thousands of years – since roughly the middle of the Pleistocene – to develop their look. (Yamaguchi and others, 2004)

Wildcats are formally known as Felis silvestris. (It’s usually abbrevated as F. s..)

So, even though the cats above are almost mirror images, they belong in different subgroups – catus and silvestris, respectively.

Still, Nordic “twins” aside, housecats and wildcats do have a lot in common.

Flying wildcat
Spot quiz: Domestic cat, wildcat, or a new Marvel character? The bushy ringed tail, with its blunt tip, clues us in that this is a Scottish wildcat. Actually, its nickname – Highland Tiger – would make a good Marvel character name!

Fluffy and Silvester deserve their own post in this series on cat evolution because:

  • Obviously, they’re closely related. But some of the best minds on the planet can’t agree whether domestic cats and wildcats are two different species (Felis catus and Felis silvestris) or just subgroups of the same one, i.e., F. s. catus and F. s. [wildcat subspecies name]. It’s just words to us, but the uncertainty can really mess up legal efforts to protect wildcats. (Macdonald and others)
  • Our own history is part of the story. Cats have associated with human beings for at least ten thousand years. (Vigne and others, 2012) During that time, we’ve carried Fluffy all over the world. And in the last century and a half, we have also dramatically changed its appearance through a system of artificial selection called the cat fancy.
  • Housecats and wildcats interbreed so much that it’s almost impossible to find “pure” wildcats in some parts of Europe. This prompts warnings that wildcats are at risk for genetic extinction. But doesn’t interbreeding show that catus and silvestris are the same species? And how can having kittens make the parents go extinct? The biologists are working on these and other questions.

Let’s start off with the cats closest to us – the few that are fancy-breeds as well as the many unpedigreed domestic cats that share our homes, yards, and streets.

Then we will get a little better acquainted with Silvester and see how some wildcats might have been domesticated.

After a brief outline of Fluffy’s history, we’ll check out the issue of genetic extinction – what it is and what it could mean for people – especially cat owners – as well as wildcats.

Feral cats, fancy breeds, and housecats

You aren’t imagining things – there really are a lot of cats out there, 600 million of them associated with households and another 600 million unowned, roaming and reproducing freely (Driscoll and others, 2011), i.e., feral cats. (Robertson)

“Feral” does mean “wild,” but these aren’t wildcats. Wildcats are, well, wild – feral cats were once domestic or else have very close relatives that are domesticated.

wp-1475011444023.jpeg
Some cats haunt the borderland between feral and domestic.

Feral cats exist wherever people live or have lived. It’s a worldwide problem, and one that we humans have caused. (Robertson)

But in this post they are only relevant to the wildcat conservation issue, so we’ll talk about feral cats later.

What about the hundreds of millions of owned cats? Who really owns whom?

In other words, are housecats really domesticated?

Continue reading Housecats and Wildcats (Fluffy and Silvester)

All the Cats in the World Except Fluffy and Silvester

It’s enormous fun to look at cat evolution, because you get to look at cats. Even people who don’t like pet cats are impressed by cheetahs, lions, and tigers.

Cheetah dramatic
How did life on Earth come up with something like this . . . and housecats and lions, too?

There are actually more cats out in the wild than most of us have ever dreamed of, including the gorgeous Asiatic golden cat shown at the top of this post.

Today we are going to look at all of them, except for Fluffy and its wildcat relatives. I’m saving them until next time for two reasons:

  • The biological line between housecats and their ancestors – the wildcats (one word) – is blurry, so we need to check them out all together.
  • We do need to talk about how cats evolved. Even though that happened to wild cats (two words) over millions of years, Fluffy’s history is helpful. Cat breeders have been intentionally messing with its genes for over a century. Is the process that has given us the tailless Manx and the bald Donskoy typical of all evolution? Tune in next time and find out!
Evolution of catcher(0)
Evolution would be great fun, too, if it worked like this. Sadly, it doesn’t, unless evolution is a lot weirder than experts think – and that’s very weird. Cats continue to play with toys and humans still must work their way through the bush leagues for a chance to play in The Show.

The following eight sections are based on the eight genetic lineages that DNA sequencing consistently shows in the cat family. (Johnson and others, 2006; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)

They aren’t presented in the order in which each group evolved – those dates come out differently for different researchers. So far, I think, the only consensus is that there are eight lineages.

The pictures have all been generously donated to either Creative Commons or the public domain by many generous photographers.  Be sure to check out their links in the image credits at the end of this post!

Let’s start out with the lineage that contains the cat featured at the top of this post – the Asiatic golden cat, known locally as the “fire tiger.” (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Then we’ll check out the big cats and the other six lineages.
Continue reading All the Cats in the World Except Fluffy and Silvester