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Hairy Animals Use Unique Grooming Techniques to Rid Themselves Of Dirt

Nov 10, 2015 10:19 PM EST
Dogs shake water off their backs, just like a washing machine, in order to keep their fur dirt-free.
(Photo : Flickr: Donnie Ray Jones)

Unlike humans, many animals are covered from head to toe in hair. While fur does help keep animals warm, it is also a magnet for dust, dirt and pollen. In a recent study, researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology took a closer look at how hairy animals are able to keep themselves clean. 

After taking surface measurements of 27 mammals and insects and combing through data provided in over two dozen studies, researchers reveal surprising information regarding the amount of hair some animals actually have, according to a news release.

For example, would you believe that a honeybee and a squirrel have the same number of hairs? Well, both animals do in fact have a total of three million hairs. That is no comparison to moths and butterflies, though. These winged insects have nearly 10 billion hairs. To put this in perspective, the human head has about 100,000.

Researchers then calculated the true surface area of an animal's body, which includes every surface where dirt may collect. Essentially, hairier animals have a larger surface area to collect dirt on. Without specialized grooming techniques, animals would not be able rid themselves of dirt or properly function. 

"A honeybee's true surface area is the size of a piece of toast," David Hu, a Georgia Tech associate professor who co-led the study, said in the release. "A cat's is the size of a ping pong table. A sea otter has as much area as a professional hockey rink."

So how do the animals keep so many hairs clean? It turns out that hairy creatures use a variety of methods.

"Dogs shake water off their backs, just like a washing machine," Guillermo Amador, a recent graduate of Georgia Tech, explained. "Bees use bristled appendages to brush pollen off their eyes and bodies. Fruit flies use hairs on their head and thorax to catapult dust off of them at accelerations of up to 500 times Earth's gravity."

Some animals, though, have what Georgia Tech's researchers called "renewable cleaning tactics," meaning that their own eyelashes funnel dust away from them; or pointed parts of their wings puncture airborne bacteria and knock it flat. Researchers suggest they could apply such natural cleaning methods to sensors, robots and unmanned aerial vehicles, and keep them free from pollutants, pollen and dirt.

"Understanding how biological systems, like eyelashes, prevent soiling by interacting with the environment can help inspire low-energy solutions for keeping sensitive equipment free from dust and dirt," Hu added in the release. "Drones and other autonomous rovers, including our machines on Mars, are susceptible to failure because of the accumulation of airborne particles."

Their study was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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