Feral Cats Now Being Watched By Scientists From Space

Colin Fredericson - Author

Oct. 7 2015, Updated 5:31 a.m. ET

A feral cat is a house cat that escaped into the wild. It then must live off wild animals, having no access to bags of cat food. But tracking feral cats has become a matter of survival for other animals. Feral cats kill massive number of birds and small mammals for food once they enter the wild.

Scientists have recently discovered ways to keep feral cats in check through space satellite observation. They can’t capture the movements of every single feral cat, but have been able to observe general patterns of movement and distances, helping in the effort to control them.

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Scientists would like to stop feral cats from killing rare species of birds. Previously, this was only possible with expensive GPS collars that were fitted to the cats. But it didn’t stop the cats from moving about and killing all kinds of majestic birds in the South Pacific.

Scientists tracked feral cats using NASA satellites, and combined those observations with the previous data from GPS collars and other data about cat population density. The result was a more accurate picture of the feral cat population and its movements. They were able to discover that feral cats roamed farther where they needed to, like in deserts with little ecological productivity, but in forests, they tended to stay within a more limited range. It was also discovered that where the cat population was denser, they traveled less. Seasonal variations were also factors. Male cats roamed farther then females due to mating habits.

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The study obtained most of its data from Australasia, but also took data from European and North American feral cat study sites. Feral cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds, and 20.7 small mammals, a year.

Researcher Andrew Bengsen, a research scientist in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Vertebrate Pest Research Unit in Australia, told LiveScience about the environments they studied.

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“We collected data from sites ranging from deserts to subalpine ranges. We’re fairly confident that the relationships we found should hold in similar sites elsewhere.”

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But urban cats are a different story and much harder to track. Their feeding habits are also vastly different from their countryside counterparts. Many urban feral cats feed on trash left behind from humans, and on rodents. Such data wouldn’t apply to a study seeking ways to preserve a population of unique birds. And the small urban mammals that urban cats feed on are considered unwanted pests, anyway.

When feral cat populations get too large, urban areas usually opt for spaying or neutering, sheltering, or killing. Cats that get sent to shelters may be eliminated in an effort to control the population. Feral urban cats are likely to hang around urban areas rather than roam away. Areas around people provide a safer environment due to less predators, like coyotes, hanging around.

In some urban areas people house colonies of feral cats, fearing what will happen to them if turned over to animal control shelters. The problem has gotten so contentious that, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, a city in Nevada wants to pass a law to “prohibit any person from maintaining, creating or establishing a location or structure for the purpose of feeding, sheltering or providing sustenance to feral cats.” But cat activists in many cities continue to advocate alternatives to animal shelters with cat killing programs to local governments.

Scientists like Bengsen can use friendlier and more high-tech means to deal with feral country cats. It’s not yet clear how the data scientists get from the study will be used to manage feral cat populations, but at least it makes their movements more predictable, and provides more options for animal conservationists. Hopefully, the technology can trickle down to the local level, and offer options for urban feral cats, too.


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