THE BLOG

Why and Where Cats Roam

The researchers hope to learn more about whether cats are drawn to one another for activities and friendship, or whether their outdoor meet-ups are mostly coincidental.
12/08/2015 09:56am ET | Updated December 8, 2016
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A team of researchers is determined to find out what housecats are up to while they're outdoors cattin' around. The researchers, from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, have begun an ambitious quest to learn more about the secret life of cats.

The Cat Tracker Project

Dubbed the Cat Tracker project, research began last year with dozens of cats fitted with GPS devices. Most of the cats are in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, but there are also several in Charlotte and elsewhere in the state, plus others as far away as California in the U.S., Australia, and Germany.

The researchers' goal is to convince the owners of over 1,000 kitties to participate in the project, which would facilitate the collection of vast amounts of information on cat behavior.

The current research project was prompted by a highly controversial 2012 study published in Nature Communications that suggested outdoor cats kill somewhere between 1.4 and 3.7 million birds each year, plus 6.9 to 20.7 million small prey animals.

These numbers are far from accurate according to experts, and have led to bitter debates between cat and bird advocates. What is not in dispute is that the behavior of free roaming housecats has consequences far beyond the significant risk to the cats themselves.

Tiny GPS Devices Record the Behavior of Free-Roaming Felines

The NC researchers believe data about cat roaming patterns and feces analysis will produce better information about the real impact of kitties on wildlife and the environment.

A student at NCSU is charged with fitting local cats with their tiny GPS harnesses and then retrieving the devices and downloading the information they've collected. Each cat's activities are posted on the Cat Tracker website and also on an international website that holds tracking information on thousands of animals of different species across the globe.

The poop collection part of the project is voluntary for cat owners - they can sign up for just the GPS tracking if they choose.

Cat Tracker Data Has Already Produced Some Surprises

Information already uploaded to the Cat Tracker site shows that cats are indeed interesting little creatures to spy on. One researcher's cat, for example, stayed within a few blocks of home most of the time - until she suddenly got the urge to take a much longer trek to visit the family's previous home.
Ultimately, the researchers hope to add video cameras so they can understand not only where the cats go, but why.

They've done a bit of testing already on a single cat, and learned that while the kitty stalked a lizard, he wasn't able to catch it. Even more surprising was that the cat went on quite a long hike to meet up with another cat, for no apparent reason - not for romance, and not for a fight. The kitties stood around, laid in the sunshine for a bit, and then the traveling cat headed back home.

Future Cat Tracker Project Goals

The researchers hope to learn more about whether cats are drawn to one another for activities and friendship, or whether their outdoor meet-ups are mostly coincidental.

The scientists also want to explore the reasons cats roam, how gender might play a role, and what prevents kitties from roaming -- for example, a nearby coyote population.

They also want to track cats in as many locations as possible so they can document the differences in behavior between, say, cold climate cats and cats in the tropics.

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