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Kitty research could offer insight to Gulf oil spill cleanup

Jaclyn Giovis Nov 12, 2010

Scientists have discovered the wonders of how FiFi drinks her milk, and it may help to solve another puzzle: How to clean up the U.S. Gulf oil spill.

The way a cat dips its tongue into a liquid is elegant, and yet so complex that until now, scientists were stumped on the mechanics of how felines drink.

The mystery was unlocked on Wednesday, when a team of engineers, physicists and mathematicians – from some of the top U.S. science departments – had their findings published in the latest issue of the Journal of Science.

Cats actually have to overcome gravity to get liquids into their mouths, the report shows. They don’t have complete cheeks, and since most fluid is presented in a horizontal surface (bowls, streams, puddles), they have a hard time creating suction.

Here’s what else the research team found out:

As a cat sticks out its tongue towards a liquid, it turns to top of its tongue downwards, so just the tip touches the surface of the liquid – making a motion like a capital “J”. Then the cat quickly retracts its tongue, drawing a column of water of liquid behind it. It swallows before gravity can take effect.

The process happens so fast it’s naked to the human eye. (Fun fact: On average, a house cat laps four times a second, and its tongue moves at a speed of one meter per second.) Scientists used high-speed photography to help find their answers.

Some say the cat research offers new perspective on how to move liquids.

“If you look at an example like the Gulf oil spill, one of the key issues is, ‘How do you get the oil up off the surface of the ocean?'” Tim Barnes, executive director of UCL Advances, told the BBC. UCL helps scientists turn their research into business ideas.

It’s unclear how the cat research will be used in the real world, Barnes said.

“But what it’s led to is a new area where people can think about something entirely different from the way it was expected,” he said.

It also confirms why cats have better table manners than dogs when they drink. Cats don’t slurp.

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