Tracking feline memories on the move

Aug 20, 2007

When a cat steps over an obstacle with its front legs, how do its hind legs know what to do? A new study in the August 21st issue of Current Biology, a publication of Cell Press, reveals that it is the foreleg stepping movement itself that leaves a lasting impression. By comparison, feline memories of having just seen an obstacle proved rather fleeting.

Indeed, the researchers found that cats could remember having stepped over a hurdle for at least ten minutes. The findings suggest that cats’ working memories can extend much longer than earlier studies had shown, according to the researchers.

"We've found that the long-lasting memory for guiding the hind legs over an obstacle requires stepping of the forelegs over the obstacle," said Keir Pearson of the University of Alberta, Canada. “The main surprise was how short lasting the visual memory on its own was—just a few seconds when animals were stopped before their forelegs stepped over the obstacle.”

The researchers examined the animals’ memories by stopping cats after their forelegs, but not their hind legs, had cleared an obstacle. They then distracted the animals with food and lowered the obstacle into the walking surface. The nature of the subsequent step revealed whether the animal remembered having stepped over the “disappearing” obstacle. To find out whether the cats remembered what they saw versus what they did, Pearson’s group repeated the experiment, but this time they stopped the cats just before they made their first step.

The results revealed that when the animals stepped over the obstacle with the forelegs they remembered this action for a long time and stepped up with their hind legs to clear the necessary height. However, if the forelegs did not step over the obstacle, the memory of the obstacle was quickly lost; simply seeing that an obstacle lay in their path wasn't enough.

“Animals, including humans, unconsciously keep track of the location of objects relative to the body as they move, and this tracking is largely dependent on signals associated with movement of the body,” Pearson said.

Although it is not entirely clear how the four-legged stepping of cats relates to people, Pearson said such memories might play a role in humans’ ability to navigate objects in the dark—for example, when you move through a cluttered room in the light, turn out the light, and continue avoiding objects you can no longer see.

Rock climbers might experience a similar phenomenon, Pearson added. “We have not tested this yet, but it is possible that the trajectory of the hands relative to potential impediments establishes a memory for guiding the trajectory of the feet in the absence of vision,” he said.

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: How do our muscles work? Scientists reveal important new insights into muscle protein

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Form Devices team designs Point as a house sitter

10 hours ago

A Scandinavian team "with an international outlook" and good eye for electronics, software and design aims to reach success with what they characterize as "a softer take" on home security. Their device is ...

Man pleads guilty in New York cybercrime case

13 hours ago

A California man has pleaded guilty in New York City for his role marketing malware that federal authorities say infected more than a half-million computers worldwide.

NASA issues 'remastered' view of Jupiter's moon Europa

22 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Scientists have produced a new version of what is perhaps NASA's best view of Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa. The mosaic of color images was obtained in the late 1990s by NASA's Galileo ...

Dish restores Turner channels to lineup

22 hours ago

Turner Broadcasting channels such as Cartoon Network and CNN are back on the Dish network after being dropped from the satellite TV provider's lineup during contract talks.

Recommended for you

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

12 hours ago

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.