By Dan Weisz
If you remember, I left off when momma bobcat crossed under the gate following her two young. I waited a bit for the bobcat to be out of my view and then approached the gate.
There, overlooking one of the settling ponds was one of the kittens. Mom had moved somewhere to the right where I couldn’t see her. I imagine she was hunting and I don’t know where the second kitten was. But this kitten seemed to be patiently waiting for mom to find some snack and return. (The settling ponds are part of the old Water Treatment Facility that created Sweetwater Wetlands. https://www.tucsonaz.gov/water/about-sweetwater-wetlands-and-access ) In this photo, you can make out the faint rectangles of the gate’s fencing that I shot the photos through.
Soon, the kitten changed positions and faced me without moving from her spot. The dried weed is still on her left (see the photo above and below)
After a short while, she opened her mouth and held it open for some time. I could not hear any sound and the cat did not make any movements with her head. It was not a yawn.
I have learned that this is something called the “Flehmen Response”. This is a behavior in which an animal curls its upper lip, inhales with its nostrils usually closed, and then often holds this position for several seconds. This behavior is done to investigate smells. The organ used to process this information is in the roof of their mouth and is called the Jacobson’s organ, which I knew that snakes had. Snakes bring molecules in the air to their Jacobson’s organ with their tongues. Cats and other animals apparently do a similar thing but inhale through their mouth to do so.
So no comments on whether or not I smelled- perhaps the kitten was just curious and was only hoping to pick up a scent! Notice that the hackles on her back are also raised. Adrenaline causes this “goose bump” response and there can be a variety of reasons for this reaction. The technical word for this reaction is “piloerection” meaning the involuntary erection of bristling of hairs.
In the photo below, the kitten is almost finished ‘smelling’ and begins to walk in my general direction but is actually headed for the thick vegetation located well to my left. Her two fangs are still visible as are the hackles on her back.
And now you can see that she has turned her attention from me and is headed towards the shelter where it will await its mother’s return. The hairs on her neck are very clearly erect here! The kitten slowly walked towards the hedges without hesitation and then disappeared from view.
I never saw the kitten nor her sibling or mother again that morning. I’m glad to know they are healthy and doing well. If I’m lucky, we’ll meet again in the future.