Even after thousands of years sharing our homes, cats still remain mysterious. For one thing, they spend an inordinate amount of time grooming themselves, up to half of their waking hours.

But all of that primping isn’t about vanity. For ambush predators like cats, staying clean is a matter of life and death.

In this episode of Deep Look we get up close and personal with these fastidious felines. By looking closely at cat tongues, research at MIT and Georgia Tech reveals clues to cats’ predatory prowess and finds inspiration for new technologies.

Fur sticks to the cat’s tongue and is detangled as it runs between the papillae.
Fur sticks to the cat’s tongue and is detangled as it runs between the papillae. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Ever wondered why a cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper? Take a close look.

Cats’ tongues are covered in little spines. Called “papillae,” they look like tiny hooks.

“They’re made of keratin, just like human fingernails, said Alexis Noel, a researcher at Georgia Tech.

The spines on a cat’s tongue point in the same direction, making it easier to free the shed fur off of the tongue and back towards the cat’s throat
The spines on a cat’s tongue point in the same direction, making it easier to free the shed fur off of the tongue and back towards the cat’s throat (Alexis Noel/Georgia Tech)

While home for the holidays one year, Noel noticed her family’s cat, Murphy, accidentally getting his tongue caught on a blanket while grooming himself.

Murphy was able to easily free himself from the temporary tongue trap by pushing his tongue back against the blanket, but not before Noel noticed the tiny spines caught in the blanket’s weave.

The magnified side view of a cat tongue shows the claw-like shape of the individual papillae.
The magnified side view of a cat tongue shows the claw-like shape of the individual papillae. (Alexis Noel/ Georgia Tech)

“The individual spines are even shaped like miniature cat claws with a very sharp end,” Noel said. “They’re able to penetrate any sort of tangle or knot, and tease it apart.”

As a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering with an interest in natural models, Noel is fascinated by the efficiency of cats’ tongues in keeping them clean.

The model is covered in spines that all point in the same direction, making it easier to remove the trapped fur
The model is covered in spines that all point in the same direction, making it easier to remove the trapped fur (Alexis Noel/Georgia Institute of Technology)
To clean a typical hairbrush, one must pluck the hair from between the bristles
To clean a typical hairbrush, one must pluck the hair from between the bristles (Alexis Noel/Georgia Institute of Technology)

Inspired by that that observation, Noel decided to study cat tongues by creating a model that replicates the tiny spines. She scanned a specimen of a cat tongue and 3D printed out the structure at 400 percent scale.

She sent the artificial cat’s tongue through it’s paces inside an a machine that drags the model across a patch of fake fur.

To clean a traditional hair brush, you need to pluck the hairs out from between the bristles. Noel’s cat tongue model was much easier to clean: She simply ran her finger across the surface in the same direction as the spines.

Noel thinks this technology may one day lead to better grooming or cleaning tools for people and pets, and might even be used to create soft robots that can more gently interact with humans.

Like house cats, bobcats meticulously groom themselves in order to help hide from prey
Like house cats, bob cats meticulously groom themselves in order to help hide from prey (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Cats groom for several reasons. In addition to detangling their fur, it removes parasites and their eggs. It also redistributes oils produced by the cat’s skin that provide the fur with some waterproofing.

“Vets will tell you not to clean your cat,” Noel said, “because you’re removing all of their protective oils and they have the habit of cleaning themselves.”

It’s also another way to show trust between cats. Friendly cats tend to groom each other. And if a cat trusts you it will groom its human.

But perhaps the most important reasons to stay clean is that as ambush predators, cats need to hide their smell from prey. Prey species tend to be on the lookout for danger, and one whiff of the wrong odor can give the cat away.

As dedicated carnivores, cat’s pointed teeth perform well when it comes to piercing flesh and tearing meat from the bone
As dedicated carnivores, cat’s pointed teeth perform well when it comes to piercing flesh and tearing meat from the bone (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Like most other mammals that are predators, cats have wide mouths to help them sink their teeth deep into their prey. The large opening on the sides of their mouth helps them get a better bite.

But according to Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, a researcher now at Virginia Tech, “the downside of that mouth shape is drooling.”

While working at MIT, Jung collaborated with Roman Stocker, Pedro Reis and Jeffrey Aristoff to study how any why cats use a lapping technique to drink.

“Due to the large openings on the sides, once cats have water in their mouth, the water will flow out,” Jung said. “The wide corners of their mouths make it difficult for them to create suction with their lips. Instead they lap water with their tongues to drink.“

High speed video shows the column created when cats lap water
High speed video shows the column created when cats lap water (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

The team of researchers studied high-speed video of cats to show how they flick the surface of water with the topside of the tip of their tongues.

“Cats place their tongue on the water surface and then lift the lift the tongue very rapidly and create the nice column of water,” Jung said. “Before the column pinches off and breaks into two pieces, they bite the column of water and drink it.”

The cat bites the column at just the right moment to get as much water as possible while also keeping its face dry.

Researchers at MIT used models to study the fluid dynamics involved when cats lap water
Researchers at MIT used models to study the fluid dynamics involved when cats lap water (Sunghwan(Sunny) Jung/ MIT)

The MIT team created a model that mimics the way cats create the column. Researchers used a glass disc that rests directly on the water’s surface. They adjusted the acceleration of the disc up from the surface to find the optimal rate.

Too fast and the disc doesn’t get a chance to draw as much water up into the column. Too slow and gravity has a chance to pull the water back to the surface.

They discovered that house cats tend to lap water about four times a second while larger species of cats, like lions and tigers, lap slower as their body mass increases. The larger species also capture a greater amount of water per lap compared to the smaller species.

Josh Cassidy (right), Deep Look lead producer and cinematographer, confers with Oreo (left), during production at Cat Town Cafe in Oakland.
Josh Cassidy (right), Deep Look lead producer and cinematographer, confers with Oreo (left), during production at Cat Town Cafe in Oakland. (Mikel Delgado/Feline Minds)

This episode of Deep Look was largely filmed at Cat Town Cafe, a rescue and adoption center in Oakland. Special thanks to Mikel Delgado of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consultant.

Author

Joshua Cassidy

Joshua is a Digital Media Producer for KQED Science, and the Lead Producer and Cinematographer for Deep Look. After receiving his BS in Wildlife Biology from Ohio University, he went on to participate in marine mammal research for NOAA, USGS and the Intersea Foundation. He also served as the president of The Pacific Cetacean Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching students K-6 about whales. Josh studied science and natural history filmmaking at San Francisco State University and Montana State University.

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