Cat lovers we need your help: talk to us about fur

The Science pages launch a national survey to learn more about cat genetics

Do you have a cat or do you see cats rambling through your neighbourhood? Do you want to participate in a big study that will tell us a great deal about the cats that live in Ireland?

Today the Life Science page launches a national citizen science effort to learn more about the origins of our cats. It is a real science project that will deliver real data, but taking part could not be easier: all you have to do is tell us about a cat's fur.

It can be your own cat or one living in the neighbourhood or one you spot sitting on a windowsill in a nearby house. All you have to do is tell us what county the cat lives in and what colour it is.

This may seem a pointless exercise, but actually it tells a geneticist such as Prof Aoife McLysaght a great deal.


The colour of a human’s eyes or hair involves large clusters of genes, but only one or two genes dictate what colour a cat’s fur will be, she explains.

Therefore, if you can can answer a few simple questions about a cat's coat colour, she can tell you the genetic group to which the cat belongs.

"This is a really profound concept: genes that control for appearance," says Prof McLysaght, who leads a research group at Trinity College Dublin looking at the evolutionary patterns in animal genomes.

Coat colour alone is enough to begin putting any cat into its genetic grouping, and if enough people respond, the outcome will be a set of data of value to scientists, she says.

“Is the mix of cats in Co Carlow different than in Co Wicklow or are they the same? Are cats in Monaghan or Cavan similar to these or different?” she says. “You can start asking these kinds of questions. This is a real data set and it hasn’t been done in 20 years.”


Dr Andrew Lloyd did something similar back in the 1980s, but was based at that time in Boston University. "We were looking at population genetics and decided to study cats because it is easy to place them in a genetic group," says Dr Lloyd, now of Institute of Technology Carlow's department of science and health.

The group collected coat colour information for more than 10,000 cats in 30-40 populations in Canada's maritime provinces and around the Boston area.

“The reason cats are so good for this is the fundamental genetics for cats has already been done,” he says.

“It is also good because if you want to study the genetics of mice or fruit flies, they look the same from the outside and so you need blood samples or something else. With cats there are 10 different genes, which can be detected just by looking at them: their colour, long or short fur, male of female.”

No expertise is required for people to get involved in the study. “It is a project that anyone can get involved in,” says Prof McLysaght. “People can record their own cats or cats that they see in their neighbourhood. It doesn’t have to be your cat. It would be great if lots of people got into it and collected coat colours for lots of cats,” she says.

“It would be wonderful if a few schools got interested and undertook it as a classroom project. We can make the data available to use as a project. People are potty for their cats so we should be able to get lots of data and this is good for teaching the meaning of genetics and for analysing information,” she says.

Dr Lloyd is excited about what the study could turn up. “I would be amazed if there was a big leap from one area to another, but there are differences,” he says.

An earlier small study showed that the occurrence of orange-coloured cats was twice as high in Donegal than in Dublin. “We can anticipate that kind of variance in cat genes. There should be a gradual distribution,” he says.

Both scientists are interested in how cats migrated with their human owners and the history of this will be written in the genes of the cats in Ireland today.

Comparative work of this kind has been done at Trinity by Prof Dan Bradley who studies human migration and the domesticated animals as they developed in the Levant and moved out with their human owners.

Similar genetic studies are under way at University College Dublin and at Maynooth University. COLOUR CODING: PHENOTYPE AND GENOTYPE

Taking part in this study of the genetic story of Ireland’s cats could not be easier. It all comes down to the colour of the cats that you see.

Geneticists use two terms to discuss how appearance is affected by genes. The cat’s fur colour puts the cat into a group related to how it looks: its phenotype. The genes behind this colour are related to the cat’s genotype. It is easy to know the cat’s genotype without having to take blood samples or collecting its DNA. All you have to do is be able to see its coat colour.

Knowing the genotype for lots of cats is useful, because it tells you about the distribution of cats around the country. It will show if one genotype has a dominance or identify areas where one genotype is more common.

If enough people take part in counties around the State, then there will be lots of useful information that can be of value to scientists doing genetic research. And large numbers also help to ensure that accurate and usable data is coming through.

"If you get enough people on board, any errors get put down to standard error; the good data swamps out the bad," says Dr Andrew Lloyd of Institute of Technology Carlow.

Schools could help build up the data by taking this on as part of a class project. "It is good for teaching the principles of genetics," adds Prof Aoife McLysaght. "People who are taking part can get a clearer idea between what they can see as the phenotype and the genes underneath it all." THE CAT PROJECT: GET INVOLVED

Ireland’s cat-lovers will want to take part in a national survey to study the genetic background of Ireland’s cat population. It is being collected by relying on the participation of members of the public.

Crowd-sourcing of scientific information is becoming a useful way to get very large amounts of data with the aid of “citizen scientists”.

Mapping the genetic background of the cats living in Ireland provides a perfect example of how this can be done, says Prof Aoife McLysaght of Trinity College, Dublin.

No special knowledge or skills are required. All those taking part have to do is click the cat genetics tile above and then fill in a simple eight-question form.

The questionnaire asks:What county is the cat in?

Is it long- or short-haired?

Several questions on the colouration of the cat, including whether the cat has white patches or “gloving”, which is white paws.

If the cat has stripes, are they orange or some other colour?

Does your cat or the cat you see in your neighbourhood (or anywhere) have a tortoise-shell colour with patches of orange and black? Cats with this colouration have a strange genetic configuration where there is a gene for black and another for orange and you get patches of both.

Pure white cats have a category of their own so if you see a white cat in your county then there are only three questions that need an answer.

“By recording the coat colour you get physical characteristics and can link these characteristics to the underlying genes,” says Prof McLysaght.

If enough people respond, the data set will be of real scientific interest and can be used by researchers.

We will publish the findings in several weeks, with an interactive map showing you the mix of cats that live in your home county. If we get a substantial pool of respondents it should be possible to apply the data in research projects around the country.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.