Eschewing flying cats and cactus girls

You’ve probably heard the recent reports of a winged cat. The cat’s Chinese owner

says the wings, which contain bones, make her pet look like a ‘cat angel’. Her explanation is that the cat sprouted the wings after being sexually harassed.

“A month ago, many female cats in heat came to harass him, and then the wings started to grow,” she said.

However, experts say the phenomenon is more likely down to a gene mutation, and say it shouldn’t prevent the cat living a normal life. (source)

Did the tomcat grow these wings just to fly away from his groupies? How Lamarckian of him!

More on winged cats at the end of this post. . . but first, there are much odder stories blamed on “gene mutations”. I ran across this dreadful mess in a 2005 issue of Pravda:

Geneticists say that mutations seriously change the set of chromosomes, and people with mutations can thus hardly be called humans.

In Yerevan in the former Soviet republic of Armenia, 18-year-old girl Narine Aivasyan shocked doctors with her unusual disease. The girl complained about an abscess on her wrist that had been hurting her for a long period already. When doctors opened the bandage on Narine’s hand they saw two very thin thorns sticking out of the hand. . . Doctors removed from 70 to 100 thorns from the girl’s arm every day. But they still appeared later, which suggested there were two or three parasite cells still staying in the girl’s organism. Doctors from many countries stated there was not a surgical but rather a microbiological problem.

When researchers studied the bigger thorns they arrived at a conclusion that they were no longer of vegetative origin. As a result of mutation, the patient got new unknown cells, some sort of a hybrid of a human and a plant. In other words, the young girl was turning into a cactus.

Yikes! I have no idea what is wrong with Narine, but I seriously doubt she was a Triffid. Honestly, I find the quality of this “journalism” far scarier than the ludicrous idea of cactus-human hybrids.

Unfortunately, it’s on the internet, and there are quite a few people out there who think that anything published on the internet is reliable. Including some of my former students.

So where should one go for reliable information about genetic diseases, without running into questionably sane sensationalism? My favorite authority is the invaluable OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man). Users can search OMIM by the name of a gene, the name of its associated disease, or keywords (Tim at Sciencesque uses OMIM’s search function to select random genes for review). But I’ve found that even for senior biology majors, the information in OMIM can be dense and difficult. It’s best to supplement OMIM with some alternative, accessible, trustworthy sources – and ScienceRoll has compiled exactly such a useful list. I highly recommend bookmarking it.

Back to the winged cats. In fact, they do exist. But the usual explanation is matted hair, not mutation. Henry David Thoreau documented the first report of a winged cat in Walden:

she was of a dark brownish-grey colour, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flattened out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her ‘wings,’ which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and the domestic cat. This would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet’s cat be winged as well as his horse?

Thoreau’s “poet’s cat” sounds much like my own cat in appearance and coloring. Her fur forms felt-like dreadlocks that I have to cut out with scissors. Unattended, they could easily become ten inches long and stiff, like wings, before being shed when the anchor hairs fall out. (I doubt Thoreau appreciated what a pain it would be grooming a “poet’s cat”.)

Many cases of winged cats made serious news during the last century. In 1926, Time Magazine reported a case near Wapato, WA (where I spent several childhood summers). Most of the “wings” were probably caused by matted fur, or a genetic collagen deficiency called feline cutaneous asthenia (the cat equivalent of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome). Creative taxidermy artists have also pieced together fake winged cats.

The Chinese winged cat supposedly had bones in its “wings;” neither matted fur nor FCA (nor taxidermy, since it’s alive) would explain that. I’ve found large sticks and burrs completely encased in my cat’s matted fur, and they feel like small bones, so I’m skeptical. But if the wings really have a bone structure, then the cat may have supernumerary (extra) limbs of some degree. The cause could be a genetic mutation – or a non-genetic birth defect.

In any case, since its owner describes it as an “angel cat,” I hope it won’t share the unfortunate fate of the Russian “Devil Cat,” which was drowned by superstitious locals in 2004.

More: the winged cat page.

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2 Responses to Eschewing flying cats and cactus girls

  1. Pingback: Arctic sea ice *is* melting fast « Sciencegeekgirl

  2. You’re so right- some of this online journalism IS scary! Thanks for provding those websites- it’s so hard to find reliable websites on genetic deseases…

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