People: Alan Wilson, John Hutchinson, Andrew Cuff

A team of Structure and Motion Lab researchers has worked with the BBC and presenter Liz Bonnin to create a new three part series delving deeper into the lifestyle and behaviour of domestic cats. This series compares the lifestyle of town cats, village cats and farm cats to see how they each cope with the challenges of their environment and shared territory.

Wild cats and domestic cats

The technology for tracking the cats was developed by Professor Alan Wilson for his research into big cat ranging and hunting behaviour in southern Africa. He adapted and miniaturised tracking and movement detection collars designed to be carried by lions, leopards and cheetahs so they could be worn by domestic cats. Find out more about the collars used on big cats and little cats. Alan explains how cats' locomotion is adapted for hunting:

"Cats are specialised to hunt by stalking their prey and then pouncing. Their prey are usually smaller and more agile than they are, so they need to time the pounce very accurately to swipe the prey with their front paws. Cats are able to twist their bodies to put their feet in any position around their body to capture a small, highly manoeuvrable prey animal that is dodging around. They do this with incredible precision, making use of their excellent hearing and vision to target their prey. In the wild, big cats run their prey down and then swipe it off balance to secure their next meal. Using our tracking collars, we are studying how and where big cats hunt most successfully, so we can contribute to their conservation."

You can find out more about Alan's African wildlife research and his cheetah research.

Veterinary PhD student Richard Harvey was responsible for fitting collars to the cats and showing their owners how to check they were comfortable. This was much easier than the usual cats Richard has to collar for his research into hunting performance by large African carnivores in Botswana. Richard analysed and interpreted the collar data, to show the routes taken by the cats around their territory, in exactly the same way he does for the big cats in Botswana.

Cheetah chasing lure
Cheetah chasing lure at Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, South Africa
Richard Harvey with Cheetah
Richard Harvey with cheetah

Big cats and little cats

To understand how big cats such as tigers compare with the much smaller domestic cats, demonstrations were filmed in the Structure & Motion Laboratory. Dr Andrew Cuff, Leverhulme Research Fellow, explains his research into how size affects agility in cats. Modern cats range in size from around 1kg in the black-footed and rusty-spotted cats to 300kg for the largest tigers. For most animals this change in size would have an associated change in their posture (how they stand) and their movement, but not for cats. Andrew is studying how cats' bodies change from small to big sizes whilst maintaining the typical crouched posture that no other animal groups seem able to achieve across such a broad range of sizes. This work includes looking at many aspects of their body shape and anatomy, particularly their muscles and bones and how these change from small cats to big cats. These photos show how the skeleton changes between big cats and little cats:

Images showing size comparison of bones from lion and domestic cat.

Professor John Hutchinson is an expert in the evolution of animal locomotion. In the programme John explains how body size influences cat locomotion - how bigger cats are relatively less athletic than smaller ones.  To illustrate this concept, the BBC filmed domestic cats running past high-speed videos and over pressure pads in the lab and compared their locomotion with tigers.  John explained how cats are odd in that, unlike other mammals, they don’t straighten their limbs as they get bigger (to help support their weight), which means bigger cats must move in less extreme ways. A domestic cat twists its flexible spine when it falls, to land on its feet, and this becomes harder for bigger cats with stiffer spines which therefore face greater dangers of injury on landing.

Professor John Hutchinson describes a cat's skeleton
Professor John Hutchinson describes a cat's skeleton

Interested in studying science at university?

Cat Watch 2014 presenter Liz Bonnin took a Master's degree in Wild Animal Biology at the RVC. She achieved her degree with distinction, with a research project on tigers. The RVC offers the top rated animal and biological science courses in the UK. Graduates from our BSc Bioveterinary Sciences degree work in a broad range of fields across the world and we also offer a variety of taught MSc and research degrees.

BBC Horizon’s ‘The Secret Life of the Cat’ (Thursday, 13th June 2013) adds a new dimension to our understanding of domestic cat behaviour. The programme follows a live study of 50 cats in the village of Shamley Green in Surrey.  The cats were tracked 24 hours a day using GPS and activity-sensing collars developed at the RVC Structure & Motion Laboratory. The RVC team (Alan Wilson, Jim Usherwood, Kyle Roskilly, John Lowe and Julia Myatt) worked on the programme with Dr Sarah Ellis, a specialist in cat behaviour from the University of Lincoln and Dr John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol, a specialist in human-animal interactions, to interpret the collar data and explain the findings to the cats’ owners.

Alan Wilson explained why he was keen to take part in the programme: “We know a lot more about the behaviour of some wild cats than we do about pet cats. Tracking the movements of 50 neighbouring cats simultaneously was a fantastic opportunity to find out about their activities, interactions and territorial behaviour.”

The collars were specially-developed miniature versions of the collars Alan uses in his research on wild lions, leopards and cheetahs in Africa.

The challenge was to make the tracking sensors small and light enough to be carried on a quick release cat collar, efficient enough to last for 24 hours on a single small battery and sufficiently robust that they could withstand whatever the cats put them through.

Some cats were also fitted with small cameras to obtain the cat’s eye view of the world.

This experiment sheds new light on just how active cats really are, how far from home cats roam, and how they defend or share their territories.

Find out more about how the Wildlife Tracking Collars work and about Alan Wilson's other research projects:

  • CARDyAL: Co-operative Aerodynamics and Radio-based DYnamic Animal Localisation
  • Cheetahs: Dynamics and Energetics of Hunting in the Cheetah - lead article in Nature
  • CHEETAH: Bio-inspired Robot
  • LOCATE: Locomotion, hunting and habitat utilisation among large African carnivores and their prey.

Take a look at the RVC Research pages to find out about other exciting research being undertaken at The Royal Veterinary College.

Interested in studying science at university?

The RVC offers the top rating animal and biological science courses in the UK. Graduates from our BSc Bioveterinary Sciences degree work in a broad range of fields across the world and we also offer a variety of taught MSc and research degrees.

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