Is Fluffy really a backyard serial killer? Scientists are spying on cats to find out.

By Sarah Keartes July 16 2014

One cat, two cat, red cat, miniature head-mounted video camera-wearing ... cat. 

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Image: David Barber/Flickr

A group of researchers from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University is embarking on arguably the most internet-worthy project of all time: spying on pet cats.

Using tiny 3D-printed harnesses, satellite trackers and miniature head-mounted cameras, the team hopes to detail what cats do when they're not lazing around on your couch or dancing to dubstep (go ahead, watch it ... we'll wait). 

The 'Cat Tracker Project' comes in response to a 2013 study that initially estimated outdoor cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion small mammals per year.

"The numbers of bird and animal deaths mentioned in the study are far from precise," says Troi Perkins, a zoology and fisheries student who works on the project. "The researchers wanted to know more."

Not only did the study's broad estimates spark the curiosity of the North Carolina researchers, but they also fanned the ongoing battle (dubbed "apocalypse meow" ... slow clap) between Twitchers (extreme birders) and feline fanatics. 

"Whether you love cats or hate them, their behaviour has important implications," says team member Robb Dunn. "They may (or may not) eat [these] significant numbers of birds and other wild animals, and may wander in ways that could affect the spread of microbes."

The scientists are particularly interested in developing solid data on why cats do (or do not) roam, and if gender plays a part in the desire to move around. Adding video feeds to the tracking data could largely improve their understanding. 

"We know where cats go, but we don't really know why," perkins explains.

Dunn's own cat (a test animal for the project) was tracked wandering over a mile to the family's previous home. "She's old, and all her parts don’t work well, but she walked back all that distance," Dunn says. "Cats are doing these things we don't know about."

This isn't the first case of 'catspianage' taken on by scientists. In 2012 researchers at the BBC put 50 cats in the Surrey village of Shamley Green under 24-hour surveillance, which revealed some surprising cat stats. The biggest reveals were that they hunted less than expected ... in fact, the cats spent more time in each other's houses, eating other's cat food (much to the shock of the humans who lived there) than they did hunting outdoors.

"In many ways, scientists know more about the roaming behaviour of big cats in Africa than they do about our own pets," the show's producer Helen Sage explains. To change this, Dunn and his team are going big, hoping to persuade cat owners to enrol over 1,000 cats from a much wider scope than with the BBC group.

"We recently established collaborations with researchers in New Zealand and Australia," explains Your Wild Life, who run the Cat Tracker website (where, by the way, you can anonymously register your own furry friend). "The New Zealand cats, in particular, will make for an interesting comparison group ... [the island's] only native mammals are bats and sea lions, making Kiwi kitties the top of their food chain."

But sending so many cat cams into the world has some people on edge. The team must work through various legal, ethical and practical issues before the cameras can start recording. What's to stop the camera army from playing a bit of 'peeping tomcat' or wandering onto private property? There are certainly some logistical kinks to work out, but Dunn and the team aren't giving up just yet. 

"We view cats through the lens of how we see them culturally, but seldom do we view their actual behaviour," Dunn says. "We want to change that."

Top header image: Linda Tanner

Sarah Keartes

Sarah Keartes is a science writer with a serious shark addiction. A self-proclaimed Attenborough wannabe and member of 'the nerd herd,' she is likely to be spotted performing dissections and wielding lightsabers ... sometimes simultaneously. Find her on Twitter @sarahkeartes VIEW more from this CONTRIBUTOR

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