The Application of Geometric Morphometrics to Explore Potential Impacts of Anthropocentric Selection on Animals' Ability to Communicate via the Face: The Domestic Cat as a Case Study
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During their domestication via artificial selection, humans have substantially modified the morphology and thus visual appearance of non-human animals. While research highlights the negative impact of these modifications on physical functioning, little is known about their impact on behavior and signaling, either toward humans or conspecifics. Changes in the appearance of the face, such as those associated with, but not limited to, facial expressions, form an important part of non-verbal communication. In companion animals, the face is one of their most visually diverse features (due to human-driven selection), which may impact the visual clarity of expressions and other forms of signaling. Using the domestic cat as our model, we applied a new analytical technique in order to understand the impact of breed variation on relative positioning of facial landmarks, chosen specifically for their association with the production of various facial movements, and the expression of affect. We then assessed the extent to which facial appearances known to be associated with a specific underlying state (i.e., pain, assessed via a validated, facial pain score), could be reliably detected in a morphologically diverse population. Substantial baseline variation in landmarks was identified at both the cephalic (e.g., brachycephalic, dolichocephalic, mesocephalic) as well as breed levels. While differences in facial pain scores could successfully differentiate between “pain” and “no pain” in the facial appearance of domestic shorthaired cats (DSH), these differences were no longer detectable when assessed within a larger more morphologically diverse population, after corrections for multiple testing were applied. There was also considerable overlap between pain scores in the DSH “pain” population and the neutral faces of other breeds. Additionally, for several paedomorphic breeds, their neutral face shapes produced scores indicative of greater pain, compared to most other breeds, including the DSH cats actually in pain. Our findings highlight the degree to which anthropocentric selection might disrupt the communicative content of animals' faces, in this case the domestic cat. These results also suggest a potential human preference for features extending beyond the infantile, to include negatively-valenced facial forms such as pain.