Broken glass. Sharkskin. A cat’s tongue. These are things that are sharp and rough. If you’re reading this, chances are one of them is in your house right now, maybe even your lap. It’s probably not a shark.

If you’ve ever been licked by a cat, you’ve felt the thousands of tiny razor blades that dot the surface of their tongue. The purpose of that rough, gritty texture has been the topic of medical and anatomical debates since before I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

The research

Researchers from Georgia Tech, a tiny schoolhouse located down a tractor path from my intellectual powerhouse alma mater, the University of Georgia, wanted to explore the unique properties of the feline tongue. The Georgia Tech engineers built a 3D model of a cat’s tongue—400 times larger than life. You read that right. During the process, they uncovered some pretty interesting findings that may help us better understand why a cat’s tongue is rough. And design a better hairbrush.

The lead scientist of the study was doctoral candidate Alexis Noel, who was interested in innovating better wound cleaning devices. That led her and the Georgia Tech team to examine how a cat’s tongue is used to clean their fur and skin. Cat lovers have long observed the extensive grooming abilities of cats, and veterinarians have documented how self-cleaning of wounds can facilitate healing. Noel wanted to better understand how this happened—and if she could use those findings to help humans. She also noted she might invent an easy-to-clean hairbrush. I’ll even volunteer a name for her newfangled thingamajig: Lickety Locks.

High-tech hairbrush

Noel’s research found that the feline tongue’s microstructures are amazingly well-adapted to remove snags and tangles from a cat’s coat. Their fancy tongue model revealed the spines could move in four directions, instantly adapting and snagging any knots encountered. In an interview with UPI, Noel remarked, "When the cat's tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further. Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook's mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart." I couldn’t have said it better.

The research team also found the spines lining the feline tongue were incredibly flexible, further enhancing their cleaning ability and making them virtually maintenance-free. Noel hopes to adapt this design to products ranging from healthcare to cosmetics.

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Magical multi-tool

Although this research presents a cat’s tongue as a high-tech hairbrush, let’s not forget those bristles also aid in eating, drinking and personal hygiene. The tackiness and muscular dexterity of the feline tongue are almost unmatched in the animal kingdom. Those keratin spines enable a cat to rip meat from bones and cup micro-droplets of water. They pluck fleas and ticks, sponge dirt and debris and even appear to improve blood circulation.

That roughness also exempts a cat from the human-licking duties of their smooth-tongued canine colleagues. I, for one, am extremely grateful dogs don’t have cats’ tongues. You know what I mean. And, go Dawgs! (And, just between you and me, well done Georgia Tech.)

Jan 10, 2017

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