'Meow' isn't language, but enough to manage humans

ong the lines of 'Mee-O-O-O-O-O-W!' Whereas, the sounds rated as more pleasant (or less demanding) tended to be shorter, with the energy spread evenly through the high and low frequencies. These sounds started high and went low, like 'MEE-ow.'"

An urgent or demanding call "is the kind we hear at 7 a.m. when we walk into the kitchen and the cat wants to be fed. The cat isn't forming sentences and saying, specifically, 'take a can of food out of the cupboard, run the can opener and fill my bowl immediately,' but we get the message from the quality of the vocalization and the context in which it is heard," says Nicastro, a two-cat owner who has been exposed to plenty of context.

A pleasant or appealing sound might be heard from a cat at the animal shelter if it hopes to be adopted by a soft-hearted human, Nicastro says. "In that context, it would not be to a cat's advantage to sound too demanding. The pleasant-sounding cats are the ones most likely to be adopted, while the demanding ones risk being left behind."

The Cornell study examined the evolutionary process of "artificial selection," which Charles Darwin pondered on the way to developing his theory of natural selection, Nicastro notes. "I was interested in learning how humans have shaped cat vocal behavior by artificial selection, and how cats have evolved to exploit pre-existing human perceptual tendencies. Seven thousand years ago, when we think the ancestors of our domesticated cats began wandering into Egyptian granaries and offering to trade rodent-control services for shelter, it was probably the pleasant-sounding cats that were selected and accepted into human society."

Curious about vocalization in the wild ancestors of the house cat, Nicastro visited South Africa's National Zoo in Pretoria and recorded African wild cats. Their calls were neither pleasant nor appealing, he reports. "Those cats sounded permanently angry. If they were looking for affection, they weren't expr

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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