For Cats, a Big Gulp With a Touch of the Tongue
It has taken four highly qualified engineers and a bunch of integral equations to figure it out, but we now know how cats drink. The answer is: very elegantly, and not at all the way you might suppose.
Cats lap water so fast that the human eye cannot follow what is happening, which is why the trick had apparently escaped attention until now. With the use of high-speed photography, the neatness of the feline solution has been captured.
The act of drinking may seem like no big deal for anyone who can fully close his mouth to create suction, as people can. But the various species that cannot do so ó and that includes most adult carnivores ó must resort to some other mechanism.
Dog owners are familiar with the unseemly lapping noises that ensue when their thirsty pet meets a bowl of water. The dog is thrusting its tongue into the water, forming a crude cup with it and hauling the liquid back into the muzzle.
Cats, both big and little, are so much classier, according to new research by Pedro M. Reis and Roman Stocker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined by Sunghwan Jung of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Jeffrey M. Aristoff of Princeton.
Writing in the Thursday issue of Science, the four engineers report that the catís lapping method depends on its instinctive ability to calculate the point at which gravitational force would overcome inertia and cause the water to fall.
What happens is that the cat darts its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water.
The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it.
Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column down ó snap! The catís jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.
The cat laps four times a second ó too fast for the human eye to see anything but a blur ó and its tongue moves at a speed of one meter per second