The evolutionary origins of the cat attractant nepetalactone in catnip
June 30, 2020 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Catnip’s chemical attractant is new twist on old family tradition (Florida Museum): Catnip is most famous for its ability to launch felines into a euphoric frenzy, but the origin of its cat-attracting chemical is a remarkable example of evolutionary innovation. [...] Many of catnip’s relatives in the mint family use iridoids as chemical armor. But an international team of researchers (Science Advances) found the ancient ancestor of catnip lost a key iridoid-making gene. Descendants in this lineage – herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary, lemon balm and mint – had to lean on other defenses, with one notable exception: catnip, which revived the family tradition by evolving a new iridoid production line from scratch.
posted by not_the_water (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, sniff, sniff, sniff...A fresh new thread! I was just thinking about planting some catnip, to protect other plants in my neighbor's garden, where the cats are munching some. But that 55-65 million years ago event that caused catnip to stop, or change, or nearly get wiped off the earth, by a giant asteroid strike, or volcanic eruptions in Asia, well, some stuff definitely went on to decrease the population of these plants, maybe in the more temperate zones where they are desirable to animals, and maybe occult seed of the originals survived in the more arid areas, farthest away from the meteorite strike zone, and once there was healthful rain again, these plants rose up again, against considerable odds. The cats are going to love me, but not really, they will love what I plant. I could put some in very hot grappa, and possibly make a natural mosquito repellent. I will let you all know how that goes...
posted by Oyéah at 12:53 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]


The research is part of the Mint Genome Project. It just sounds so wholesome. What do you work on? Mint genomes.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:10 PM on June 30 [5 favorites]


The article didn't have enough pictures of spaced-out kittehs, so here's my friend Kelly's cat, high on catnip. Not quite as high as lemurs baked on toxic millipedes, as nothing's that high that ever came down.
posted by scruss at 1:10 PM on June 30 [8 favorites]


What do you work on? Mint genomes.

Certainly more wholesome than working on Mint GNOME.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:14 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Obligatory Catnip: Egress to Oblivion? link, a warning for those who dare to wade too far into catnip's seductive waters.
posted by delfin at 1:23 PM on June 30 [4 favorites]


I really get a kick out of posts like this
posted by Flashman at 1:28 PM on June 30


Nepetalactone (the uncut, pure shit for kitteh highs) is also present in Tatarian Honeysuckle
posted by lalochezia at 1:28 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Being a noob gardener this year, I bought a very nice perennial, only marked with it's latin name. Wow, look at the pretty pale purple flowers! - I thought. Planted it. Found kitty rolling around and munching it...Google confirmed it was catnip. Oops. Somehow it's still alive, for now...
posted by kitcat at 1:48 PM on June 30 [4 favorites]


obligatory big cats on catnip.
posted by scruss at 2:03 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


kitcat: My plants have narrow tubes of chicken wire around them. The cats can have everything that grows outside the tube and enough remains to keep the plant alive. Figured that out after they browsed a plant down to the ground.
posted by Botanizer at 3:45 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]


My cat goes somewhat psychotic at menthol, as in pain-relief preparations. Licks my hand, then starts biting.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:05 PM on June 30


Have they determined what the neuropharmacology of catnip is yet, though? Is it analogous to any human intoxicants? (People usually jokingly analogise it to cannabis, though I imagine if anything it'd be like a hybrid of cocaine and MDMA.)
posted by acb at 4:09 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


I've never seen a real cat IRL love catnip. It makes me sad that I've never seen that. Like, does it actually work?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:25 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]


It varies between cats in a surprisingly stark way, jenfullmoon! I've never read up on why, just know it from practice. Neither of our current cats care about the stuff at all; both cats my family had when I was growing up would go out of their goddam minds for it.
posted by cortex at 6:42 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]


Our cats love it. Our elderly-21?-year old girl just rubs on it and blisses our. Our 2 year old “kittens”-pure cold blooded carnivores-just sit on the plant and absorb it through their stomach or somethjng (similar time how cats read newspapers) while I inevitably say “don’t bogart that joint”.
posted by purenitrous at 8:31 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Most cats love it and react to it in a way that can literally be hours of entertainment. If you've ever done LSD, well that seems to be how most cats react when they're on it.

I had a small catnip plant in my garden this year and one day decided to clip a few sprigs off it and throw it in the food dish I keep on my porch for the local strays. The next day the plant was gone, eaten down to a stub.
posted by SystematicAbuse at 8:48 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]


cat-attracting chemical

Cattracting, surely
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:50 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Cat reaction also depends on how they ingest it. Some toys have it inside, so all the cats are doing is smelling it. If they eat it directly it has a different reaction.

My cat loves the stuff, though its more likely to calm him than make him go nuts.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:09 AM on July 1


My cat appears to be indifferent to catnip-filled toys, though when presented a handful of dried catnip, she reënacts a cocaine scene from Scarface.
posted by acb at 8:56 AM on July 1


My cat appears to be indifferent to catnip-filled toys...
Just as with coffee, tea, and weed, there's good stuff and not-so-good stuff. And even the good stuff goes bad with age. I have always attributed the reaction (or rather the lack thereof) to catnip-filled toys as reflecting these facts.

Just as the good tea does not go into teabags and the good coffee does not go into Keurig pods, the good catnip apparently does not go into catnip mice.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 12:49 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]


Silver vine is another option for cats! Thanks to whatever apathetic Japanese English dictionary I used at the time (“whatever, call it catnip”) I thought the Japanese word for silver vine referred to catnip for something like 8 years.
It got weirder and weirder. The eccentric owner of the pet hotel we used to use claimed that he’d harvested catnip branches in the forest. That’s weird, I thought, I could’ve sworn catnip was a mint and didn’t have “branches.” Birdwatching friends would point out the plant, so I could recognize the plant from the silver leaves. That didn’t seem right, but OK.

Then a friend from the US saw one and kept saying it was a kiwi plant. At this point I had no idea what the ever loving fuck was going on and actually googled it. It turns out silver vine is silver vine, not catnip, and it’s also a kind of kiwi. The cat likes both catnip and silver vine, with maybe a slight preference for catnip? Same reaction, he just lies down and licks it contentedly for a bit.
posted by sacchan at 6:51 AM on July 2


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