Tigers and Cheetahs can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar human voices

Big cats, including tigers and cheetahs, have the ability to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar human voices, according to recent research. This suggests that even solitary animals are not socially inept. While cats are often considered aloof, studies have shown that domesticated felines can differentiate their owner’s voice from that of other humans. In captivity, researchers found that their exotic cousins also possess this skill.

The ability to recognize different tones could be crucial for these animals in the wild to identify their offspring and monitor their surroundings. Additionally, it could help them pay attention to alarm calls from other species. The study was co-authored by Professor Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

“We shouldn’t just assume that sociality is only about group living and that only group living is important for cognition,” she said.

The study conducted by Vonk and colleagues, published in the journal PeerJ, involved the observation of exotic cat species, such as lions, clouded leopards, snow leopards, and servals that lived in captive settings like zoos, sanctuaries and nature preserves.

The team began with a pilot study involving seven cats from five species. They then conducted a larger study involving 24 cats from 10 species, out of which 16 had been hand-reared by humans and the remaining eight had been reared by their mothers.

The cats were exposed to audio recordings of three unfamiliar humans speaking the same phrase – “Good morning, how are you doing today?” – followed by a recording of the same phrase in a familiar voice, such as that of the animal’s keeper. A final, fifth recording featured another unfamiliar voice repeating the phrase.

The process was repeated using recordings from the same people, but this time featuring the name of the exotic cat. The team recorded and analyzed the cats’ reactions and behaviors in response to each playback, such as a shift in gaze, head movement, moving towards or away from the sound, or vocalizations such as hisses or growls.

According to the research findings, cats, regardless of their gender or whether they were raised by their mother or by humans, responded more quickly, for a longer period, and with greater intensity to the voice of a familiar human as compared to four different voices that they were unfamiliar with.

Even after excluding lions, who are the only known wild cats that live in large social groups, the results remained the same. It was observed that including or excluding the cats’ names in the phrases made no significant difference.

“I was surprised the results were as clearcut as they were,” Vonk said.

The research team has found out that the ability of cats to recognize human voices is not necessarily a result of domestication but rather due to their frequent interaction with humans. The study suggests that even wild cats could exhibit similar results if they were exposed to the same human voices regularly.

However, the study has some limitations, such as the sample size being too small to differentiate between species. Additionally, all the cats in the study were raised in captivity.

“I think for the public it’s interesting to think that even non-domestic cats are registering who’s looking after them,” Vonk said. “It suggests that they may not be as aloof and indifferent as they sometimes have the reputation for.”

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