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Reverse Engineering the Cat's Tongue

Cat’s Tongues Inspire Smarter Accessories


Researcher, Alex Noel, was watching her cat licking a microfiber blanket. The cat then got its tongue stuck and needed help to extricate himself from the cloth. This minor incident started Alex thinking about the unique structure of feline tongues and how this could be applied to everyday tools in order to make them more efficient.

Cats’ tongues are covered in tiny spines. These lift and rotate to groom and detangle fur. They are rigid and just like miniature claws which are embedded in the cats’ tongues.


Studying the Feline Tongue


Alex Noel is a PhD student in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. As such, she had access to high speed cameras. These made it possible to accurately capture the mechanics of cats’ tongues so that researchers could study the spines in detail.


How Cats Groom


When cats groom themselves they are able to stiffen certain muscles in their tongues and this action causes the spines to pop up. They rotate as they encounter tangles in the fur. Their sharp and hooked form means that they can penetrate the tangles and ease them apart. Feline tongues are also self-cleaning.


3D Printing a Tongue


The researchers used the footage from the high speed cameras and CT scans of a feline tongue to create a 3D printed model of the spines which they then embedded in silicon. The model could be used to test precisely how cats’ tongues work. This was a lot easier than trying to get a cat to do what they wanted!


New design for Hairbrushes


The research team were then able to explore practical applications for the mechanisms that they had studied. It is possible that a system of spines could be used to create a new kind of hairbrush. Human hairbrushes have changed little in the last 400 years and combs dating back to 8000 B.C. which have been unearthed by archaeologists have been almost identical to the ones we use today. But hairbrushes could be about to change.


Easy Clean Hairbrushes


Conventional hair brushes tend to collect mats of hair which are awkward to remove. Using a design inspired by cats’ tongues it would be possible to push off this hair easily with one finger as the spines flatten.


Applications for Robotics and Health Care


The small spines could also be used to create new features for robots. The spines would enable robots to grab objects and manipulate them without using significant force. The grooming mechanism also offers potential for improving the cleaning of wounds. This is something which cats do whilst grooming.


Cats’ tongues have never been studied in such detail before. Most people knew that the tongues were rough but there had never been research into their structure and why it is so very efficient. It may not be long before new products are available which exploit the brilliance of the feline tongue and enable humans to make good use of it.


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