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A Crash course in linguistics

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
May 31, 2009

One evening, Crash went missing. I went out on the front porch to retrieve her, something we usually did an hour before sundown. We were in southern California at the time, and evening brought the owls, the dogs, and the coyotes. Crash, at six pounds, was small enough that a red-tail hawk might be able to carry her off.

This particular evening, no Crash. We looked around carefully in the apartment complex. It was unusual for her to venture more than about 50 feet from the front door. Usually she was content to go out on the hot asphalt driveway and bake her brains out.

I called the pound. It was closed to the public, but they had a night guy there. “Do you have a tiny black and white cat, missing a foot and half her brains?” I asked.

“Yup, and she's sleeping right now. And we're closed. You can come bail her out after 9am.” One advantage to Crash was that she was pretty easy to describe accurately. I was there at 9 sharp. A vet was there, and she explained that someone had spotted Crash running in a circle on the center median of US 101. This was near an interchange about a mile and a half from our apartment. The motorist, thinking Crash had been hit and was injured, risked his life and pulled over, retrieved Crash and took her to the pound. They, too, assumed Crash was injured, and were surprised to find that aside from the fact that she had clearly had a terrible accident several years before, she was in excellent health.

The vet walked with me back to the cage where Crash was. I realized later that she wanted to observe the interaction between us. Pet abandonment is a big problem in southern California, and she wanted to get an idea if whether I was the sort who would leave a little crippled cat to die on one of California's busiest freeways. Unlike the vet, I didn't have the faintest idea how Crash got to where she was found. I believed (and still believe) that she did it under her own power, since it's hard to imagine someone picking up a cat from in front of its house and then abandoning it on the freeway. If someone had tried to steal Crash and Crash objected, they would have found wreckage and possibly remains of the kidnapper nearby. Crash had her own unique ways of defending herself that made her extraordinarily dangerous to mishandle. But then again, Crash usually couldn't walk 100 feet in a specific direction, and wasn't what you would call goal-oriented. She seemed a low risk to wander (and in fact, never did so, before or after).

We reached her cage, and I looked in and felt a gust of relief. I was pretty sure they had the right cat, but I wasn't completely ready to accept it until I actually saw her. I leaned in toward the grating. “Hello, Crash” I crooned.

She promptly lifted her head, focused on me, and gave me a meow of greeting.

“She vocalized!” the vet exclaimed.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. She's quite a talker.”

The vet explained that every night, two or three stray cats were brought in, and without exception, they fell into one of two sets of responses. Some were scared to death of the strangers around them and the scent and sounds of the other animals and crouched at the back of their enclosures and made no sound, other than to hiss. The other type were assertive, pissed off, and wanted everyone to know it, and yelled their heads off. They had actually started treating Crash for shock because when she was brought in, she clearly wasn't frightened, but she was also utterly silent. Cats in shock or pain WILL purr, however, and Crash wasn't doing that, either. She was curious about her surroundings, and quite relaxed about strangers touching her. If a shelter worker put a finger in front of her face, she would lean forward and sniff it, and she clearly liked being stroked and petted, but she didn't make any of the little noises cats make when you pet them. The vet had concluded that she was mute.

Crash did like to talk, but she had a much smaller vocabulary than most house cats. She had a single noise, a flat unaffected meow about an octave low. She sounded like her batteries were running low.

The Vet knew standard cat behavior. Cats who are frightened or in shock are silent. Cats who meow are trying to convey a state of mind, whether it be anger, pleasure, hunger, or annoyance.

I read lately that cats only meow for humans, and not each other. That's not completely true—our cats will meow at our dogs as well as us. But unless they are fighting or in heat, cats usually are silent when dealing with one another. Crass vocalizations are for dealing with the lumbering lummoxes of inferior species, such as great apes and dogs.

Most cats have enough inflection that alert humans learn that there are meows that mean “feed me,” “pet me,” “let me out,” “let me in,” and “I've changed my mind, let me out after all.” Dog barkings are even more versatile: ours has a specific bark that means “It's getting dark and the cats are still outside.”

It's a two way street, by the way. Humans speaking to cats or dogs don't make the same noises they make talking to other humans, and usually just overhearing a person from around a corner will tell you which species that person is speaking to.

Mice don't have this ability. Mice just squeak, either at us or at one another. Usually, by all appearances, it's pretty random.

But recently, some scientists took a gene, FOX2P, which plays a critical role in the mechanics of human speaking, and inserted it in mice. How did they do this? It was really quite simple. They took growth of a yeast fox2sps19Delta mutant in which Fox2p was exchanged with rat peroxisomal multifunctional enzyme type 1 on trans-9,trans-12 linolelaidic acid medium gave credence to this theory. Then the gene encoding the multifunctional protein (MFP) of peroxisomal beta-oxidation in Saccharomyces cerevisiae was isolated from a genomic library via functional complementation of a fox2 mutant strain. At which point, substitutions within the carboxyl-terminal tripeptide (Ala----Gly and Lys----Gln) supported targeting of HDE to peroxisomes of C. albicans but not of S. cerevisiae. The scientists then investigated the regulation of expression of the gene (HDE), encoding the peroxisomal trifunctional enzyme hydratase-dehydrogenase-epimerase (HDE), of the diploid yeast Candida tropicalis. The gene (HDE) encoding the peroxisomal trifunctional enzyme, hydratase-dehydrogenase-epimerase, of the yeast Candida tropicalis, was cloned and its nucleotide sequence is reported.

Nothing to it, really. Your five year old kid could have done it. And yes, I cribbed that from Wikigene, and I don't know what the hell any of it means, either. But they put a human speech gene in mice.

It didn't make the mice gifted orators. There wasn't a William Jennings Byran in the whole lot of them. In fact, there wasn't even a George W. Bush. These were no exceptionally gifted mice.

But the nature of the squeaks among mice born with the FOX2P gene changed. There was a wider variety of squeaks, with a greater range of inflection and modulation.

They didn't end up with talking mice, not that anyone expected that. But they did end up with mice that seemed to be showing increased ability to vocalize. If you accept the premise that cats meow in order to communicate (if on a rather basic level) then you have to entertain the possibility that the genetically altered “frankenmice” now have that same ability.

Humans that lack the FOX2P gene have problems with voice articulation and usually have problems with vocabulary and grammar skills. It was this lack in an entire English family that caused researchers to notice the lack of that particular gene in the first place. Prior to that, everyone had just assumed they were Americans, the poor things.

So if inserting this gene in mice can bring about a measurable change in their vocalization habits, what happens if the gene is inserted in animals that have better communication skills. Would cats, so treated, be able to express a preference of one brand of cat food over another? Would Lassie be able to indicate there was a knock at the back door, as opposed to the front door?

I'm sensitive to the moral and ethical issues involved, not the least of which is that we're messing around with our two closest friends in the animal kingdom – not that we haven't been doing that right along.

Nor am I going to go all Doctor Doolittle here and start rhapsodizing about how we “could talk with the animals, walk with the animals.” But we are slow and simple, and don't have the gifted sense of smell and keen awareness of body language that dogs and cats use for communication among themselves, and changes that might make it a bit easier to understand the needs and wants of our favorite critters are no bad thing.

Still... It would have been nice to ask Crash just what the hell she was doing out on the center divider of 101 over a mile away.

Posted: June 4, 2009

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