On December 4th, 2017 we learned about

Organisms prepare for danger by picking up on specific smells

Growing up, we’re taught to look and listen for dangers in the world around us, from oncoming traffic to fire alarms. As humans, we generally gloss over things like smell, because these other senses are just so central to our experience. Our experience, however, isn’t universal, and plenty of other organisms do use their sense of smell for these tasks, sniffing for signs of trouble before it’s upon them. It’s actually such popular way to survey one’s local environment that life forms that lack a proper nose even rely on smell as a way to stay safe, or at least prepare for the worst.

Preemptive protection for plants

The tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) is a plant that, as the name would suggest, grows up to four feet high and sprouts small, yellow flowers at its top. It’s popular with populating insects, but also with bugs that can cause it harm, like goldenrod gall flies (Eurosta solidaginis). The flies like to lay their eggs in the stem of the goldenrod so the larvae can hatch surrounded by their first meal. Their munching might not kill the plant outright, but they induce the plant to grow a gall, or protective casing around the larvae, that can strain growth and reduce the flower’s seed production.

To protect against the flies larvae, tall goldenrod have evolved a very specific defense system. A plant under attack will produce jasmonic acid, a compound that can reduce the amount of nutrition the larvae can gain from eating the plant, constraining their growth and theoretically limiting their impact. Researchers have confirmed that this defense mechanism can be deployed to greater effect if the plant can prepare in advance, particularly after smelling danger in the air. The exact scent they pick up is the mating pheromones of male E. solidaginis flies. While the flies use this scent to communicate their intent to reproduce, tall goldenrod can use it as a way to minimize the damage for the eventual offspring.

Roundworms bolster themselves against bacteria

The tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is a bit more mobile than your average tall goldenrod, but they use smell to prepare for danger in a similar way. Instead of worrying about fly larvae, the microscopic nematodes keep a nose, or smell receptor, out for the scent of a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria called PA14. Even though the worms are technically mobile, they don’t bother fleeing a sniff of bacterial byproducts, and instead prime their cells’ immune response. When they do come in to contact with PA14, the prepared roundworms are much more likely to survive the encounter than peers that are caught off guard.

While roundworm safety is great, research into this dynamic has been more focused on understanding exactly how it works on cellular and chemical level. Scientists first had to confirm that the worms were able to truly prepare in reaction to the smell of bacteria, and not just reacting to any stimuli. They exposed the roundworms to smells from various bacteria, and found that their “noses” were discriminating enough to only react to odors from more dangerous sources.

The mechanism that drives the preparation is called heat shock response, and is common to both plant and animal cells. When a stress, like changes in heat, salinity or other stimuli, is encountered, the cell creates specific proteins to do extra repair work in any damage that cell already has. That way it will be more likely to withstand new damage caused by the new threat when it starts causing trouble. While humans aren’t necessarily concerned about the same strains of P. aeruginosa the nematodes are, we might like to imitate their cell’s sense of smell to fight off other diseases or even symptoms of aging that do affect us.

Source: Worms learn to smell danger, EurekAlert!

On November 27th, 2017 we learned about

High-speed dust could help spread life throughout outer space

What are the odds that we’re all alien life forms? Even if your family has been in your home town for generations, there’s a chance that all life on Earth originated elsewhere, and was somehow transported to this planet billions of years ago. The idea is known as panspermia, and is usually based around the notion that a large asteroid broken off or expelled from a planet carried some hearty organisms along through space, eventually crashing into Earth where those organisms spread and diversified. A new wrinkle in this model is being suggested now, as simulations have found that a large rock may not have been a necessary component for life to travel— biological particles in a planet’s upper atmosphere may have been able to be launched by dust alone.

While there’s not enough air to breath in space, it’s not a complete vacuum either. In addition to larger and smaller asteroids, there’s a fair amount of dust that either never coalesced into a larger object, or was broken off a larger object in a collision. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that some of that dust is zipping along at a brisk 156,586 miles per hour, giving them a significant amount of energy to shove other particles that might be suspended high above a biologically active planet’s surface. For example, if a microscopic organism was suspended 93 miles over the Earth’s surface, around the altitude of auroras, a collision with space dust could knock it past the planet’s gravitational pull towards a new home (assuming it survived the collision.)

What life could survive in space?

Once biological material was on its way, the trip might be easier to survive than you’d think. Some bacteria have been found to survive in the generally hostile environment of outer space, and plants and animals do better than expected as well. However, a living creature wouldn’t be strictly necessary to seed life on a new planet. Even the delivery of organic molecules like amino acids would make a huge difference in kick-starting an ecosystem, some of which have already been linked to meteorites found on Earth. If these molecules could be sent sailing from mere dust as well, then the possibilities really open up for interstellar pollination.

Source: Space dust may transport life between worlds, University of Edinburgh News

On November 16th, 2017 we learned about

Bacteria swim and sense their surroundings with a single piece of anatomy

To walk down the street, your body employs over 25 muscle groups to control your gait and keep you upright. If you happen to bump into something, your foot has between 100,000 to 200,000 nerve endings in the sole alone to capture an enormous amount of detail about what you just hit. This works for us, but there are simpler ways to get around. After all, even lone bacteria can propel themselves through the world, making due with minimal sensory information. Exactly how that was all done with a single cell actually been a bit of a mystery, but researchers from the University of Basel have finally found how these tiny organisms interact with their environment.

The key feature in bacterial navigation is a long tendril extending from the cell membrane called the flagellum. As long as the bacteria is in some kind of liquid, from saliva to water to mucus, the flagellum spins, pushing the bacterium around like a stringy propeller on an outboard motorboat engine. It’s movement is powered by a stream of protons entering the cell, at least until it hits something.

Sticking a landing

When the bacterium comes in contact with a solid surface, the flagellum reveals its secondary function: a sensory “organ.” When the flagellum hits something, the the wall of your sinuses, the flow of protons is disrupted, which triggers further reactions inside the cell. Aside from the flimsy propeller being slowed down, the change in proton movement tells the bacterium to create an adhesive, which it then uses to anchor itself to that solid surface. In just a few seconds of contact, the bacterium is setting itself up to potentially launch an infection in the tissue it just bumped into.

Researchers hope that by understanding how bacteria initiate infections, we may be able to develop the means to disrupt them. This study was done with harmless Caulobacter bacteria, but the method of propulsion and mechanical sensitivity is probably used by many species of bacteria, including those that cause health problems in humans. With any luck, further research will allow us to prevent or at least slow this anchoring process, offering new forms of treatment as an alternative to our weakening library of antibiotics.

Source: Bacteria have a sense of touch

On October 11th, 2017 we learned about

What makes smoke from wildfires so bad to breathe in?

My neighborhood, while thankfully a safe distance from being actually immolated in the fires spread across northern California, is starting to look a little scary. The skies are darkened with the red tint of smoke, and trees just two blocks away are starting to be obscured by the thickening particulate. My third grader is… not taking it well. She’s nervously asking how close we are to the fires, if her aunt further north is safe, and if she should start expecting ash to start falling out of the sky, a scenario she only knows from stories about when a baby in southern California. Parental instinct leads me to try and calm her, but with at least 160,000 acres burned this week, how worried should we be about all this smoke?

Byproducts of burning plants

The smoke from forest fires has a lot of different ingredients. Trees’ and other plants’ exact combinations of cellulose, tannins, oils, waxes and more can create a wide range of chemical byproducts of a fire. Smoke from a burning forest is likely to contain carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, benzene, formaldehyde, trace minerals and other particulate matter. While that may sound like a big scary list, your body can bounce back from the bigger molecules it inhales pretty well, with only temporary irritation to sensitive tissues in the eyes and respiratory tract. The items that are more worrisome are the tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, around 30 times thinner than a human hair. These minuscule particles can get lodged deep in your lungs, where they can cause more lasting damage to cells.

Avoiding inhalation

There are, unfortunately, a lot of health concerns with breathing in too much smoke. Older people, people with compromised hearts or lungs, and of course, growing kids, are all considered to be especially at risk when the air is too polluted. Kids with asthma are probably at the most risk, as irritation can cause their airways to close enough to completely restrict breathing, but anyone who’s lungs are either sensitive or still growing should really avoid breathing hard outdoors if at all possible. Breathing in some particulate is unavoidable— the goal is just to minimize exposure and impact.

Some folks wear dust or surgeons’ masks to try to stay safe, but most of those masks aren’t designed to block the tiny particulate that is of the most concern. Even if you do have an N-95 or P-100 respirator, it needs to fit against your face without gaps, otherwise you’ll end up sucking in particulate you were trying to filter out. Staying inside is probably a safer bet, using air conditioners to help filter the air. If that’s not an option, you may want to look for Clean Air shelters, or even climate controlled malls and businesses, as a way to avoid sucking in too much smoke.

Hazards from flaming houses

The fact that 3,500 buildings have burned down in these wildfires complicates things a bit. Houses these days are packed with a lot of plastics, which burn hot and fast, releasing more toxic and corrosive gasses like hydrogen chloride, phosgene and even hydrochloric acid. Thankfully, most of these won’t be released in high enough concentrations to affect the surrounding areas, and are more commonly issues for firefighters entering burning buildings. In those scenarios, the to big worries are carbon monoxide and cyanide, both of which are odorless, colorless and most dangerous in hot areas with restricted airflows, like a structure fire. Both chemicals restrict your body’s access and use of oxygen, and can be lethal in under ten minutes’ exposure. Again, this isn’t something you need to worry about in a smokey neighborhood downwind of a fire because concentrations each compound will probably be too low to cause that much harm, but it’s something to consider if you’re ever asked to evacuate, as staying in your home may put you and firefighters in much more risk if you need rescuing later on.

Extended influence

If all this weren’t enough, there’s a chance that wildfires are affecting you even if you can’t see the smoke. Global surveys of air quality have found that large forest fires release enough smoke to be detectable on a large scale, even beyond areas where the smoke is visible. In some cases, there are things that can be done to try to mitigate the impact of forest fires, from direct prevention to reducing carbon emissions that raise the world’s temperatures and make fires more likely in the first place.

For now, everyone’s rubbing their eyes, doing a bit more sneezing, and hoping that the fires can be contained before things get too much worse. If waiting things out feels too passive,  making donations to the people whose lives have been more directly uprooted by the fires has felt helpful as well.

Source: Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials by Harriet Ammann, Robert Blaisdell, Michael Lipsett, et al., Environmental Protection Agency

On October 4th, 2017 we learned about

Pinning down the causes and effects of overly picky eaters

“Do I have eat all of it?”

My daughter looked at me, trying her best to look sad and tortured over the possibility of eating three more forkfuls of salad. The effect was slightly diminished though by her hand, which was still pinching her nose to stop herself from actually tasting her food.

“Yes, eat all of it.”

For all the groaning and whining, she did finish the serving of vegetables. Like most kids her age, she’d greatly prefer a diet strictly composed of starches and sugars, and so this melodrama wasn’t that surprising. However, it also wasn’t that bad- she’s been slowly expanding her range of palatable foods. I can’t really say that she’s a picky eater, because she will try new foods, occasionally even admitting to like them. What may seem “picky” one night might not on another, or to another parent. Because having a limited diet can have an impact on one’s health, scientists are trying to figure out what metrics can be used to classify a truly picky eater.

Figuring out what makes kids finicky

There are a lot of factors involved in a kid’s attitude towards food. Environmental feedback from parents and caregivers counts for a lot, but there’s evidence that kids all have an underlying predisposition for certain foods over others. One distinction that’s being made is cases where kids object to a meal because they don’t like the food, or if they’re objecting as a way to gain control over a situation. That’s sometimes easier said than done, as some kids seem to swing back and forth in their reactions to anything that’s not their favorite macaroni and cheese.

One truly measurable criteria may turn out to be genetics. Kids identified as “picky” by the adults in their lives had their DNA tested, with particular attention given to five genes related to taste. Out of those five, two genes were more likely to have variations in kids that turned their noses up to everything. Kids with very limited palates were most likely to have an unusual nucleotide on the TAS2R38 gene, and kids that turned meals into power struggles showed differences on their CA6 gene. Incidentally, both genes are associated with bitter taste perception, and so these kids’ objects may be tied to feeling extra sensitive to bitter flavors. Since evolution has used bitterness as a toxic defense mechanism in many species of plants, it’s not surprising that it would be an issue kids would fight about.

Minimal menu leads to damaged eyes

This doesn’t mean that picky eaters aren’t worth working with. Most veggies aren’t going to give them a dangerous dose of toxins, but it may just save them from serious vitamin deficiencies. A boy in Canada was recently brought to a hospital because his vision was deteriorating at an alarming rate, and could only make out a blur of movement if objects were dangled a foot in front of his face. Dry patches were found around the edge of his iris, and his cornea was somewhat disfigured.

Doctors eventually realized that he was severely vitamin A deficient, thanks to an extremely limited diet of lamb, pork, potatoes, apples, cucumbers and Cheerios. Without a trace of carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach or fish in his diet, the boy had essentially starved himself of a nutrient most of us don’t need to worry much about. Instead of eating his vitamin A, he was left to receive multiple doses of it intravenously, which restored much of his vision, but not all of it. At least the apples and Cheerios are helping the poor kid get some fiber.

Source: Got a picky eater? How 'nature and nurture' may be influencing eating behavior in young children, MedicalXpress.com

On October 3rd, 2017 we learned about

Dead and injured cells call for help with multiple waves of calcium signals

Owies and boo-boos are a fact of life. Even decades after we figure out how to walk, we’re still quite good at getting poked, cut or scraped with enough force to kill cells in our bodies. Fortunately, our cells have contingency plans for these events, and can spring into action around a wound to start closing it up, even without a Band-Aid! This amazing feat is something we’ve all experienced, but the exact nuts and bolts of how our cells handle it still isn’t fully understood. A new study with fluorescing proteins, high-speed cameras and super-accurate lasers has found that some of the difficulty in deciphering how our bodies heal is due to how complicated the process actually is.

A cell’s final signal

One factor that makes studying healing tricky is the speed that cells work at. In response to a wound that destroys even one cell, the surrounding tissue is “activated” by a surge in calcium ions in less than a tenth of a second. Previous studies suggested that this calcium signaling followed one of two courses. Either a dying cell releases internal fluid carrying calcium ions to nearby cells, or a signal is passed from one cell to the next at points of physical contact, which are called gap junctions. In both scenarios, the outcome would be that the healthy cells would become mobilized, moving to block up the hole left by the destroyed tissue.

So to observe how that process actually plays out, scientists had to devise a system that could track changes in calcium levels on a very tiny timescale. To make the calcium visible, scientists used fruit fly larvae that were raised with a special protein that fluoresced, or lit up, when it came in contact with calcium. So while no calcium ion would be directly observed, the ions’ path through cell proteins would glow everywhere they went. Since this happens very quickly, high-speed cameras recorded the millisecond-by-millisecond process, making it understandable to human perception. This all required an actual injury, of course, which was provided by a tiny, ultra-violet laser, capable of punching microscopic holes in a single cell at a time.

More than a single signal

The laser was fired for a single femtosecond, but that was enough to heat part of the cell, and create a cavitation bubble. The bubble is a point where pressure in a liquid suddenly drops, and then bursts, which in this case lead to non-lethal damage to the cells surrounding the laser’s target. This kicked of multiple phases of activity, starting with a burst of calcium ions pouring out of the destroyed cell. A wave of calcium increases then spread outward from the wound, mostly likely traveling between cells at gap junctions. This is all wrapped up quickly, but 45 seconds later, another wave of activity starts, spreading slower and farther than before, indicating that it’s being triggered by bigger, slower molecules. Researchers also noted that this wave only occurs when a cell has been killed, not just injured. If that weren’t enough, the next 30 minutes has even more activity. Rather than maintain the original, symmetrical flow of calcium, researchers noticed “flares” of calcium that would reach out from the injury site in a straight line, last for 10 seconds, then subside.

In the end, it seems that both models for calcium transmission were correct, but they didn’t tell the whole story on their own. The next step is to figure out what slower molecules trigger the second, bigger wave of calcium activity, as well as the intermittent “flares” into surrounding tissue. Aside from understanding how fruit fly, and human, bodies actually work, the hope is that this information will some day lead to better ways to treat injuries. We may even end up with Band-Aids that actively promote healing, even beyond the lovely placebo effect they currently provide.

Source: Cell signals that trigger wound healing are surprisingly complex, Phys.org

On September 17th, 2017 we learned about

Determining what makes microbes more drug resistant in microgravity

Future human endeavors in space may run into problems with bacteria from Earth. The microbes that cover our planet seem to be surprisingly resilient to being in space, a concern that has pushed NASA to extreme measures like destroying spacecraft to avoid contaminating new environments. Experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) suggest that we may need to develop some new medical strategies as well, as bacteria in microgravity may inadvertently make themselves more resistant to antibiotics.

Absorbing less, clumping more

In a series of experiments on the ISS, researchers observed a number of changes in Escherichia coli samples adapting to microgravity. On Earth, forces like buoyancy and sedimentation help push nutrients through bacterial cells with the help of the planet’s gravity. But in the perpetual free-fall of the ISS, these mechanisms didn’t function, leading to bacteria taking in fewer nutrients from their environments. That also meant that they had a smaller surface area to absorb medicines like antibiotics, and larger doses were needed to kill them than on Earth.

This might sound manageable, but collapsing into a more tightly packed ball wasn’t the only effect of microgravity. The E. coli on the ISS also tended to grow in clumps, which researchers worry will lead to the formation of more biofilms, which are defensive structures bacteria use to repel both medicines and immune systems. Beyond that, the microbes also grew extra outer membrane vesicles, which are small structures bacteria use to communicate with each other. This can often lead to faster infections in a body, as well as mitigate the effects of antibiotics to a degree.

Silver lining?

This may sound like the first bacterial outbreak in space will be unstoppable, but researchers are still optimistic. Understanding what microgravity does to bacteria can help us develop new techniques beyond simply increasing the doses of antibiotics. There’s a chance that further study will reveal the underlying principles that shape bacteria that may normally be obscured by the Earth’s gravity. If weaknesses can be found, this may allow us to fight bacterial infections in space and at home in new ways. It should also help us understand what happens to the bacteria we want in our bodies, since they’re needed for our immune health, digestion and more.

Source: Why bacteria 'shapeshift' in space by Jim Scott, Phys.org

On August 23rd, 2017 we learned about

Yeast, algae and urine may be astronauts’ best bet for sustenance and supplies on longer trips in space

Astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) recently got a welcome, tasty reminder that they operate in low Earth orbit. A batch of 30 Bluebell ice cream cups were delivered on a Dragon resupply capsule, marking the end of the North American summer for people living where there are no seasons. In the future, astronauts traveling further into space, such as to Mars, won’t be able to look forward to such luxuries. Instead, there’s a good chance they’ll have to find ways to enjoy whatever their onboard yeast and algae can make out of their urine.

Recyling, not resupplying

Once a ship gets too far from Earth, astronauts won’t be able to rely on regular care packages the way they can on the ISS. Like hikers trekking deep into the woods, people making the nine-month trip to Mars will need to carry everything they might need with them when they depart. This is tough, since some items essential to nutrition, like omega-3 fatty acids, don’t have a shelf life long enough to make the trip. Growing food in space may be an option to an extent, but as tasty as space lettuce may be, growing a farm’s worth of plants won’t be efficient for a while. Instead, the answer may be to bring some very compact organisms to help do a lot of serious recycling.

Water is already heavily recycled in space, even on the conveniently located ISS. Some toilets on the station are equipped to clean astronauts urine so that potable water can be reclaimed for later use. However, other ingredients in astronaut pee may provide even more utility, such as nitrogen that can be fed to yeast. If some carbon dioxide-scrubbing algae are along for the trip, they can also be fed to the yeast, at which point astronauts will have a biological factory at their disposal to create new products. Those omega-3 fatty acids, for instance, can be created by specific strains of Yarrowia lipolytica yeast raised on algae and nitrogen, ensuring a fresh supply of nutrients for astronauts on long trips.

Producing plastics

Beyond filling astronauts’ nutritional needs, genetically modified yeasts also promise to make raw materials, like polyesters. We normally think of polyester as a component of fabrics, but it may be usable in 3D printers to make other tools and components on demand in space. There are still a number of challenges to be overcome, such as the currently-impractical volume of yeast needed to make a small plastic tool, but the hope is that these methods will be refined in the near future.

There’s still no word on a urine-fed yeast that can make ice cream for future space travelers, but don’t despair if you really wanted some truly authentic astronaut ice cream. People are already working with yeasts to make dairy proteins without cows here on Earth, so version raised on algae and urine shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

Source: Space savers: astronaut urine could make supplies from nutrients to tools by Nicola Davis, The Guardian

On July 23rd, 2017 we learned about

Studying babies’ brains by sampling the bacteria from their butts

Parents concerned about their infant’s future aptitude may soon be fretting over their diapers. There’s no special scent or consistency to be looking for, but scientists have found a correlation between the bacteria in babies’ poop and babies’ later performance on cognitive tests. The exact mechanism at work isn’t fully understood, but it suggests that the microorganisms that call our bodies, and especially our digestive tracts, home may somehow influence our brains.

A swath of one-year-olds had their diapers sampled and analyzed to see what microbes were living in their guts. It’s well established that our bodies are colonized by trillions of microbes, many of which are crucial to our health, helping us do everything from digest food to blocking out more harmful species of bacteria. We acquire these microbes starting at birth, and so it wasn’t surprising that one-year-olds’ microbiomes were starting to look similar to what you’d find in an adult.

Better with Bacteroides

When these babies turned two, they were then given a cognitive assessment that looked at a range of skills. These included motor control, perception and language development. The results were then compared against the bacteria that had been in these kids’ diapers the previous year to see if any particular batch of microbes matched up with higher test scores. While not a clear cause and effect, kids that had had more Bacteroides bacteria scored higher on these tests, suggesting that the microbes were somehow connected to cognitive development. Surprisingly, babies with more diverse microbiomes didn’t do as well on these tests, even though that has been previously linked to other health benefits like diabetes and asthma.

There’s no known mechanism that would allow for the bacteria to directly influence brain development at this point, but the correlation suggests this is worth looking into. Even if it turns out that the increase in Bacteroides is a side effect of something else that does directly help brains, understanding that relationship may someday prove beneficial. In the mean time, don’t worry about your baby’s poopy diapers any more than practicality already requires you to.

Source: In Baby’s Dirty Diapers, The Clues To Baby’s Brain Development, Scienmag

On June 21st, 2017 we learned about

How Zinnia Huit could summon and speak with every animal, great and small

Sciencing the Sisters Eight!

The last sister showcase her new power in The Sisters Eight is Zinnia, although it also becomes clear that she’s been using it all along. While most of her sisters have to wait their turn for their powers to manifest, Zinnia spends the entire series conversing with dogs, birds and most importantly, the family’s eight cats. However, Zinnia’s abilities go beyond being able to chat with pets in the house, as she’s also able to summon animals to her from near and far, a feat that would probably require multiple modes of communication.

Calling all critters

When Zinnia calls in her zoological cavalry, human onlookers are somehow excluded from receiving her signal. This isn’t that weird an idea, as many creatures make use of similar senses to humans, but in ranges outside our perception. Elephants, for instance, have been found to make long-distance calls to each other between 1 to 20 hertz, just below the average human’s hearing range. These low-pitched calls travel a long way though, being audible over six miles away in optimal weather. It’s unclear how Zinnia would produce such a sound, but if she could it could theoretically get the attention of everything from a pachyderm to a peacock, all of whom rely on low-frequency sound for long distance communications.

Other birds might be getting called in with magnets. If Zinnia were somehow creating a strong magnetic field from her body, she could conceivably manipulate the navigation functions of many migrating birds. The birds normally rely on sensing the Earth’s magnetic poles, but if Zinnia could somehow put out a stronger signal, she might be able to convince birds that she was their actual destination.

A final way to summon other species would be to emit a batch of pheromones. Zinnia’s Zaniness doesn’t really mention how many insects arrive at Zinnia’s behest, but bugs like moths rely on these chemicals to find each other over large distances, often to find potential mates in a relatively gigantic world. Pheromones have been found to cause insects to aggregate in a wide range of species, with Cecropia moths sometimes traveling as far as 30 miles to find a mate.

Cat chats

As cool as calling in a zoo’s worth of animals is, it’s still noteworthy that Zinnia regularly converses with cats. Cats are famous for being less socially oriented than other domesticated animals like dogs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay attention to what humans might have to say. After all, cats don’t meow to communicate with each other as much as they do it for the people in their lives, which indicates a pretty solid effort to share their thoughts with us, even if those thoughts seem to mostly concern when they’d like to be let in or out the front door.

If you’re not Zinnia, there are still ways to try to “speak” with your cat. Body language counts for a lot, and training a cat to do specific tasks is likely to work better if it’s built around gestures instead of vocal cues alone. Following this idea, facial expressions count for a lot with cats, and learning to read them can help you understand what’s on your kitten’s mind. Some expressions probably what mean what you’d guess they mean based on human faces, such as signs of stress. However, a long, slow blink is tied to being relaxed and at ease, and cats will do this for humans and other cats when their stress levels are low enough. On the other hand, one thing people likely misinterpret is purring— even injured cats will purr, and so it doesn’t always mean a cat is happy with it’s situation, but is more likely a way for the cat to request your continued attention. So a purr might mean help is needed, or that continued petting is still required.

Zinnia seems to take all these concepts, and crank them up to enable even more sophisticated communication with the fauna in her life. Researchers haven’t pinned down the body language for complicated statements like “stop stealing the other cats’ food while invisible,” but we do at least know that there’s a foundation for her chats. Even if we can’t herd cats (or flocks of birds and bugs) very easily, there are definitely ways to start “speaking” with them.

Source: Your Cat Is Trying to Talk to You by Melissa Dahl, Science of Us