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Why Does Your Cat’s Tongue Feel Like Sandpaper?

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If you’ve ever been licked by a cat, did their tongue feel scratchy like sandpaper? The scratchiness is caused by their keratin papillae, tiny claw-like spines on their tongue that help to clean their fur. Cats (Felis catus) groom regularly for social and biological reasons, but according to research at MIT and Georgia Tech, clean fur is a huge part of what can make them successful predators. From KQED.org:

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

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.

In this episode of Deep Look by KQED and presented by PBS Digital Studios, we get an up close, scientific look at the many ways that cat tongues are unique and efficient. Bonus footage at the end of the vid: Cats drinking water in slowmo.

Next: More tongues. Plus, more cat questions: Why do cats meow? and Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? Bonus: The Fantastic Fur of Sea Otters.

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