The classroom is very different from the real world. This is something those of us that study animals and their behavior understand on a fundamental level. However, seeing concepts play out in real life that are usually taught in university lecture halls can be surprising and powerful. Instead of seeing textbook figures on PowerPoint slides, this summer I’ve gotten to witness concepts I commonly teach in the classroom come to life in my own home. During the COVID-19-induced shelter-in-place, I’ve had the chance to work really closely with two of my foster kittens. Vera and Ronnie have shown me just how phenomenally flexible the brain is and how uniquely specialized a species’ umwelt (perceptual world) can be.
First, let’s talk about these two concepts: neuroplasticity and the umwelt.
Maybe start by defining neuroplasticity generally? As a PhD student in Animal Behavior and a teaching assistant in Psychology, I teach students about neuroplasticity in the context of sensory loss. In short, this is the phenomena that occurs when an animal loses (or never had) the ability to use a sense and the other senses become “heightened”. For example, animals that lose their sight come to rely more heavily on scent and sound to navigate their world. The brain uses the region of the brain typically used for the lost sense (let’s say vision, for foreshadowing’s sake) to expand or heighten the abilities of another sense (or senses).
Similarly, in Animal Behavior and Biology courses, we teach about the animal umwelt, or the sensory world that animals experience. The umwelt changes dramatically depending upon the species that you’re interested in and the ecological world they navigate. For example, your dog may love putting its nose out the window as you drive at top speeds, but that’s generally not a human’s preferred way to experience a long car ride. This may be because for dogs, your car ride brings a flood of smells straight into its nose, which is one of its preferred senses. Conversely, for humans the blasting air of an open window can dry out the eyes, blurring vision and rendering one of our preferred senses useless. This is an example of the difference between the human umwelt and the canine umwelt.
Now, let’s get to the cute part of this article: perhaps unsurprisingly for an animal behavior graduate student, one of my “hobbies” is fostering kittens for the Yolo County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (YSPCA). My husband and I have been fostering for over a year, and I have over 5 years of experience working with shelter companion animals and captive research animals. I say this not to brag, but to ensure you that the kiddos you’re about to meet are indeed in good hands.
Vera and Ronnie came to us in May when they were picked up as strays in Yolo County (California). Upon their first vet visit and onboarding to the YSPCA foster program, they were diagnosed with congenitally malformed eyes and eyelids (they were born with abnormal eyes). As a brief aside, those of us that foster kittens are no strangers to eye issues. Many kittens battle with viral upper respiratory infections and eye disease. In fact, one of our UC Davis veterinarians, Dr. Karen Vernau, is currently conducting a clinical trial for a new treatment for said disease. However, Vera and Ronnie’s eye issues are congenital (they were born this way) and not the same as the eye issues dealt with by most kittens.
During the first two weeks with Ronnie and Vera, we treated them daily with antibiotics to get rid of their eye infections and help them heal. We were hopeful that they would be able to retain partial sight. Both kittens were able to follow and chase toys, greeted us when we walked into their room, and had no issues navigating between their bed, toys, food, water, and litter box.
At their two-week follow up appointment, the kittens’ ophthalmologist (specialized eye doctor) conducted a battery of tests and determined that Ronnie is blind in both eyes. As such, his eyes needed to be removed to improve his quality of life – both kittens are prone to eye infections since their fur scratches the cornea of their malformed eyes, and they were in a bit of pain due to eye irritation. Vera can see from both eyes, but needed a small procedure to fix her eyelids. As foster parents, we were initially devastated. Our poor little kiddos! However, as our initial surprise wore off and my science brain kicked back on, I began to realize how extraordinary these kittens are and how little this news will actually impact them.
The reality is: Ronnie is already used to being blind. He tracks toys, chases Vera’s tail, and can navigate the world easily. He just uses different senses than we had initially thought. Ronnie uses a combination of sound, scent, and vibrations to track toys and people. He uses scent to find his food and memory to find the bed. Ronnie’s surgery reduced his pain, and it did not change his sensory world.
Ronnie’s umwelt has not included sight since the moment he was born. He is a “supersensor” and relies on other senses to make his way through the world. Seeing these concepts that I teach in the classroom play out in my own home has been a beautiful thing. Ronnie and Vera are kittens like any other: they wrestle and play, they love toys, and they love pets and snuggles. These little ones have reminded me of the beauty of biology: our brains, our abilities, and the fact that there is no “normal”. Ronnie and Vera are a great reminder that animals, including humans, have a remarkable ability to adapt.
Allison Lau is a PhD Candidate in Animal Behavior. When she’s not running around taking care of foster kittens, she studies how pair-bonded titi monkeys communicate with each other.
[Editor: Alex McInturf]