Meet Diesel, Prof. Noam Sobel’s remarkable blind cat


Blog 37 Diesel

Diesel, the mascot of Prof. Noam Sobel’s olfaction lab, is an adorable example of how brains adapt to compensate for loss. Although blind, Diesel has what Sobel calls “remarkable spatial perception,” herding scientists around the lab and catching flies.

As crucial as it is to stay informed, the all-coronavirus, all-the-time news cycle is exhausting. Here’s a cheering – and inspiring – break, courtesy of Prof. Noam Sobel: a cat video, Weizmann style.

(Of course, Sobel is also in the news for his coronavirus-related research: Newsweek reported on his research in this article explaining why it’s so hard to stop touching our faces, and his lab created an online self-test, covered in Israel21C, that tracks sense of smell. Loss of that ability can be an early symptom of COVID.)

If you’ve ever visited the lush Weizmann Institute campus, you’ve seen the cats. They roam the gardens, bask in the Mediterranean sun, and sometimes find their way into the scientists’ hearts.

Sobel, a neurobiologist, describes his lab’s mascot: “Diesel is our pet cat. We found him (or he found us) when he was a few weeks old, and near dead with severe feline herpes. We managed to save his life, but not his eyes, that were eventually surgically removed by a veterinary eye specialist. Now two years old, Diesel makes one re-think sensory processing of space. Visitors rarely notice his blindness. He moves around the ever-changing environment of our lab (most things are on wheels), never colliding with objects or people. His movement is so fluid, that many people simply don't believe he is without eyes. For us humans, space is visual. For Diesel it is auditory.”

Like pet owners everywhere, Sobel and his team film and photograph their cat. This video, which accompanied a paper published in Current Biology (apparently Diesel’s many talents include scientific inspiration), “is a compilation of film taken in our lab, where Diesel regularly ‘hunts’ lab members,” says Sobel. “His most spectacular feat of auditory spatial localization, however, is his regular behavior of hunting flies in flight. He will leap several feet into the air, to catch them between his clapped paws.”

So sit back, click play, and enjoy the charms of Diesel, who lets nothing hold him back. The pandemic will still be there.