Inside NC Science: Is your cat on the prowl?

05/18/2014 12:00 AM

05/18/2014 3:59 PM

Judging by the Internet, it’s pretty safe to say that humans love cats. We love to watch them wanting cheeseburgers, playing keyboards – and even being grumpy. We share a very long history with them, with the domestication process beginning more than 9,000 years ago in the Near East. Cats ate rodent pests attracted to stored grains and benefited humans by protecting their food. Over time, we’ve bred them to be smaller, fluffier and more suitable for indoor life.

Many humans no longer need cats to kill pests, but despite being well fed, cats retain predatory instincts and will kill rodents, birds and reptiles when they get the chance. A recent study estimated that cats in the U.S. kill 1 billion to 4 billion birds annually. This, along with the dangers of outside life (vehicle collisions, cat fights, coyotes), suggests that it is best to keep cats indoors.

Still, some proportion of the estimated 600 million cats worldwide do go outside and hunt animals. To help us better understand how cats affect local wildlife, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences is interested in knowing where cats go and what they do.

Does little Muffin stay in your backyard? Or does she make long ventures into the forest? Knowing where cats go will help us understand the wildlife species that may be affected.

To study this, we’ve started a new animal tracking project on the felines that live in your home, but spend time outside: Cat Tracker. Preliminary results show most cats stay in residential areas, with some making longer-distance movements. However, we need many more cats and therefore your help to better understand their movements.

If you have an indoor/outdoor cat, and your city allows cats to go outdoors off-leash, then you can be a citizen scientist and participate in Cat Tracker. Full details are at

Basically, you purchase a GPS and harness (about $50) and attach it to your cat. He/she wears it for about a week and you both go about business as usual. After a week, take the harness off and connect the GPS to your computer. You can see your cat’s movements and share the data with us, so we can use it in our scientific research.

By working with a broad range of citizen scientists across North Carolina, we can start to understand patterns of cat behavior and see where they go. You may be surprised by what your cat is up to.

Stephanie Schuttler is a postdoctoral research associate at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

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