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The Secret of Cats' Impeccable Grooming Revealed (It's the Tongue)

Nov 30, 2016 07:11 AM EST
Curved and sharp, cats tongues behave a lot like cat claws. The hook-like spines untangle clumps of hair when the feline grooms. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
(Photo : Christopher Furlong / Staff)

Cats have gotten grooming down pat and now we know it's possible because of the unique texture of their tongues. According to a report from Live Science, their tongues are covered with spines that are shaped like claws and work similarly to Velcro in cleaning the fur and skin.

It was Georgia Institute of Technology mechanical engineer Alexis Noel who figured out the secret when she spotted the family cat lick a blanket and got its tongue stuck in the fabric. After the incident, Noel began studying the spines on feline tongues, interested in its make.

"When I was done laughing at this curious cat, the scientist in me began to question how a soft, wet tissue could stick to something so easily," she said in an interview with Live Science. "After a few seconds of struggle, he figured out that he could detach his tongue by simply pushing his tongue into the blanket rather than pulling, de-hooking the blanket loops."

The researcher gathered her co-workers to use high-speed video cameras in recording a cat able to get cat food entrenched in a 3-D-printed fur mat. Taking it a step further, the team 3-D-printed a model of a cat's tongue four times its size to observe and experiment with it more closely.

Curved and sharp, cats tongues behave a lot like cat claws, Noel explained. The hook-like spines untangle clumps of hair when the feline grooms. These backward-facing spines are made of keratin, the same material of fingernails, according to Washington Post.

"When the cat's tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further," she added. "Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook's mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart."

These findings are interesting to feline lovers, but can also benefit scientists and engineers as they design robotics that grip various surfaces, craft hairbrushes, and even concoct methods to clean wounds.

The team is planning to study the tongues of other large cats including tigers and lions.

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