How Cat Tongues Work Can Inspire Human Technology

Cats are creatures who split their time between grooming themselves, eating and sleeping. Up to 25% of a cat’s waking hours are spent cleaning their fur with their tongues. They do a good job and the secret to their success is the hollow-tipped and curved spines that give their tongues a rough surface. A paper published in the PNAS journal reveals that the papillae on the tongue carry saliva to the fur to aid in cleansing the fluffy coat and additionally, cools the body temperature as it evaporates.

A cat’s tongue is like a smart comb

The senior author of the paper is David Hu. He’s a bioengineer who works at Georgia Tech. The research conducted on cat tongues show how humans can use the principles of the cat tongue spines to develop technology that can be used for people. A new brush has been created based on cat tongue technology they call the TIGR. The prototype of the brush is designed for use on cats and humans. It removes loose fur or hair and it is cleaned with a finger swipe. It shows potential for reducing allergies caused by cats by eliminating surface dander.

The research

Six cat species were used in the study including cougars, snow leopards, bobcats, domestic cats, tigers, and lions. Each was subjected to a micro-CT scanner for a closer examination of their tongues. Researchers discovered the shape of the papillae enabled them to transfer large amounts of saliva all the way down to their skin. This allows for deeper cleaning of the fur. It is the physics involved in the process that intrigued researchers. An inspection of the spines shows that they curve backward. The spines have the capacity to wick up water quickly on contact. Every little detail about how feline tongues are shaped along with the dynamics of how they work was important to the scientists. They also found that the papillae rotate when they run into knots in the fur. This allows the spines to penetrate deeper into the fur to work out knots. These are the details that can be transferred to the new technology that will make it possible to apply lotions and creams to the felines’ skin without the need to shave off the fur. The application of light pressure detangles and cleans.

Applications for the new technology for humans

Head lice are a problem that has long plagued mankind. Removal of lice and their eggs is a long and tedious process and it involves treating the hair and scalp with chemicals and then using a small comb to loosen and remove all the nits a few thin tresses at a time until the entire head has been gone over. Could technology that is based on a cat’s tongue make this process go faster and easier? They believe so.

A new type of brush that is made of a silicone based polymer that is created on a 3D printer created a tiny brush no larger than two fingers. It features spines that are based on the cat tongue. Testing of the brush found that it has a superior capacity to remove knots from both feline and human hair when compared to a standard hair-brush. Although the brush is still undergoing further testing with potential for further development being investigated, the researchers have already applied for a patent. More improvements are needed on the prototype but they’ve already developed a new brush that shows promise for making it easier to apply lotions and creams to a cat’s skin by getting the moisture past the fur without the need to remove it.

The spine technology can also make it easier to remove the nits deposited from head lice. One of the most convenient aspects of the new brush is that it cleans quickly and easily by brushing a finger across the surface. When perfected, the goal is to offer a new and more effective brush that is suitable for a few different uses for humans and for felines with simple maintenance required in the cleaning process. Eliminating the need to clean each individual spine of the brush would save a lot of work. There is even talk about a brush based on this concept being made for increasing the efficiency in textile manufacturing. We’re sure that we’ll be hearing more about the new and revolutionary brush in the near future.


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