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Study reveals the unique surface structures on a cat's tongue

"Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook's mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart," explained researcher Alexis Noel.

By Brooks Hays
Study reveals the unique surface structures on a cat's tongue
A closeup reveals the Velcro-like hooks found on the surface of a cat's tongue. Photo by Noel, et al./APS

PORTLAND, Ore., Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Anyone who's ever been licked by a cat knows the texture unique to the feline tongue -- like wet sandpaper. A cat's tongue is adorned by tiny hooks, protrusions that grab and pull like Velcro.

New research reveals the feline tongue's microstructures are uniquely suited to seek and pull out snags and tangles in a cat's coat. Though its tackiness help cats pick up bits of food, the tongue is a grooming tool, first and foremost.

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"When the cat's tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further," Alexis Noel, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, said in a news release. "Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook's mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart."

The hook-like nobs on a cat's tongue aren't like the stiff rods on a hairbrush. They don't stick straight up. When not in use, the flexible hooks are flattened atop each other like a roof's shingles -- all pointing in a single direction. This allows the tangled hair that accumulates to be easily swiped away.

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"This configuration provides openings in a single direction, enabling the mat of hair around the bristles to be removed with a single finger swipe," Noel explained. "These openings face the cat's throat and [are] also why cats swallow their hair and end up with hairballs."

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Noel and her colleagues built a large cat tongue model -- 400 percent larger than the real thing -- to test the functionality of the hair-grabbing hooks. In tests, researchers found the model cat tongue effectively untangled fur samples and was surprisingly easy to clean.

Scientists believe similar microstructures could be used in the cosmetic industry and healthcare fields. Noel and her colleagues recently filed a patent to develop cat tongue mimic technology.

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"The flexibility of cats' tongue spines may have broad-reaching applications from an easy-to-clean hairbrush to wound cleaning within the medical field," Noel said.

Noel and her colleagues are scheduled to present their research to attendees of the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics, held this week in Portland, Oregon.

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