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Predicting invisible objects from sound

Takagi S, Chijiwa H, et al. Do cats (Felis catus) predict the presence of an invisible object from sound? J Vet Behav. 2015 Sep-Oct, 10(5): 407-412.

Recognizing invisible entities from auditory information is advantageous to animals in various situations including predator avoidance and foraging. For example, an animal hunting in the bush by sight might hear only the noise the prey makes. In this case inferring the presence of a prey from the noise would be advantageous to the hunter’s survival. Similarly, potential prey may be more likely to survive if they can predict the presence of predators from indirect clues such as odor and noise.

Inferential reasoning refers to the ability to use available information to draw conclusions about circumstances that are not directly observable. Given that cats often use auditory cues when hunting, investigating cats’ predictions about invisible objects from noise can contribute to understanding how ecological factors influence functional differences among the senses.

In 2 experiments, the investigators asked whether cats could predict the presence of an unseen object on hearing noise it made, based on a causal-logical rule. After observing an experimenter shaking an opaque container for 15 seconds (observation phase), the cats freely explored the environment for 15 seconds (response phase). Experiment 1 tested 3 conditions.

In the first, “contingent noise” condition, the object inside the container made a rattling noise when shaken. In the second, “irrelevant noise” condition, white noise accompanied the shaking action. In the third, “no noise” condition, the shaking action was silent. Experiment 2 tested a “noncontingent noise” condition, in which the rattling noise and movement of the container were out of synchrony. In both experiments cats looked at the container for longer in the “contingent noise” condition than the other conditions.

These results suggest that cats used a causal-logical understanding of auditory stimuli to predict the presence of invisible objects. This ability may be related to the ecology of cats’ natural hunting style. (MK)

See also:

Ruhland JL, Jones AE, et al. Dynamic sound localization in cats. J Neurophysiol. 2015 Aug;114(2):958-68.