Cat secrets: Researchers track 50 felines with GPS, cams

Researchers delve into the secret life of cats for a BBC special. An interactive Web site lets you follow along with individual kitties.

Online visitors can choose an individual cat to track.
Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

The CNET test cats don't lead very secret lives, mostly because they are indoors and easily located at any time (usually snoozing on a lap near the computer).

Other felines, however, are footloose and fancy-free. They step outside in the morning and don't show up again until supper time. Where do they go? What do they do? Researchers in England set about trying to answer those questions.

BBC Two's Horizon program and the Royal Veterinary College followed 50 cats in a Surrey village with GPS and micro-cameras. Cats were tracked over six different 24-hour periods to see where they went. A selection of 10 of the furry subjects can be viewed online, along with video clips of their activities.

Cats have been tracked via GPS before, and cat-action cams are nothing new. What's interesting here is the number of cats in the study and the ability to follow along online. Some of the cats keep very tight roaming areas, while others branch out quite a bit. It's not all nap-time and tail-chasing.

The GPS devices were capable of tracking the cats within inches. Batteries under the chins acted at counterweights to keep the units pointed in the right direction. An accelerometer and micro-controller was used to conserve battery and only turn on the unit when the cat was on the move. The lightweight cameras were connected to the GPS collars and triggered when there was movement and GPS activity, otherwise the team would have been combing through endless hours of cat-nap footage.

Some of the cat-view cam footage is pretty entertaining. Join Phoebe the calico as she escapes from a laundry basket. Sooty has a run-in with a fox. Ginger faces a rival in the dead of night.

Unlike YouTube, it's not all about amusing cat videos. The researchers also learned a lot about cat behavior. It seemed that cats time-share their territory to avoid conflicts, but also liked to visit one another's houses. The secret lives of cats aren't quite as secret as they used to be.

Cat faces a rival
Ginger squares off against a rival (eyes glowing in the circle). Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET