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Pet project

Scientists discover the intricacies of feline drinking

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / November 12, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Roman Stocker was eating breakfast when he looked down and saw his gray and white cat taking a drink. An idle thought brought Stocker onto hands and knees, chin level with Cutta Cutta: How did he use his short little tongue to neatly lap up water?

That seemingly banal question launched Stocker, an MIT professor who ordinarily studies marine bacteria, on a three-year project. He and colleagues staked out his cat’s water bowl with a high-speed camera, watched tigers and lions slake their thirst at local zoos, and developed a facsimile of a cat tongue.

Cats, they discovered, solve a delicate physics, fluid mechanics, and engineering problem with every gulp, allowing them to swallow the maximum amount of water without wetting their whiskers.

The findings, published online yesterday in the journal Science, may seem trifling. But knowing how a cat’s tongue works could someday have an impact in a very different sphere: The feline lapping method, shaped by millions of years of evolution, could inspire engineers designing soft robots that manipulate liquids.

“One might think what we don’t understand is quarks and particle physics and black holes . . . but a lot of what we don’t understand is in our everyday lives,’’ said Pedro Reis, an MIT engineering professor who became interested in the cat question when he and Stocker discussed it on a camping trip. “Often, things that are very mundane can be an inspiration for real practical applications.’’

William Kier, chairman of the biology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies tongues, elephant trunks, and octopus arms and said such basic research often has unexpected payoffs. Much to Kier’s surprise, for example, he is collaborating with engineers designing robots that mimic the soft flexibility of tentacles and trunks.

“Science is more about asking questions than getting answers,’’ said Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics at Harvard University. “People are always asking questions out of curiosity, and that’s how people get new ideas to put forward new proposals.’’

The authors’ curiosity led them to discover that when a cat extends its tongue, the tip curves backward into a J before it grazes the water or milk. The animal then rapidly retracts its tongue tip, drawing the liquid upward by inertia as gravity pulls it back toward the bowl. The cat closes its mouth at the precise moment inertia and gravity are in balance. The tiny hairs on the middle and back of the tongue — the ones that give a cat’s tongue its characteristic sandpaper texture — play no role in drinking.

Cat-lovers always knew their pets were clever, certainly more so than dogs, which take a straightforward approach to drinking, using their tongues as ladles to literally scoop water into their mouths. But it took bright minds from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and Virginia Tech to unravel the mechanism by which cats drink while keeping their faces dry.

The authors, who pursued their research without funding, speculate that cats are dainty in their drinking to protect their whiskers, used for sensing their environment.

The team borrowed a high-speed camera from the Edgerton Center at MIT, named for Harold E. “Doc’’ Edgerton, who pioneered high-speed photography to unravel what happens in the blink of an eye. They spent hours waiting for Cutta Cutta to drink, spiking his water with yogurt to tempt him.

When they saw, in ultra slow motion, Cutta Cutta’s tongue curl into a J, pulling water up without scooping, they became determined to understand exactly what was going on.

Next they built a tongue in the lab. A glass disc mimicked the smooth tip of the tongue. To make it quick as a cat’s, they attached the mock tongue to a device a colleague had built as a prototype for an unrelated experiment on the International Space Station. With the mock tongue, they could do what they couldn’t do with a housecat, vary different aspects of lapping to better understand how it worked.

Finally, building on their observations of Cutta Cutta and on the experiments with the mechanical tongue, researchers developed a mathematical model that described cat drinking as a delicate balance between gravity and inertia.

To test whether their theory was correct, they visited the Franklin Park and Stone zoos. According to their theory, bigger cats, with bigger tongues, were likely to lick less frequently, making precise adjustments to their lapping that the researchers predicted in detail. They approached John Piazza, mammal curator of Zoo New England, seeking permission to take closeup photos of some of the big cats drinking with the high-speed camera. Piazza eagerly agreed.

“We are people interested in the natural history of animals, so it’s great,’’ he said. “It adds to our knowledge and adds to knowledge we can impart to the public.’’

There were a few experimental mishaps, as when the scientists used a plastic water bowl and Luther, a male tiger at Franklin Park Zoo, destroyed the experimental apparatus.

But scientists found that their predictions held up. Heavier animals licked less frequently. For more research subjects, they scoured the video website YouTube to find drinking bobcats, lions, and cheetahs.

In Stocker’s Cambridge condo, where it all began, 8-year-old Cutta Cutta meowed earlier this week as scientists walked into the nook where his water bowl sat on the floor.

Stocker, stroking Cutta Cutta on the head, said there are no plans for future feline research, but that the approach will be important in his laboratory: “How you ask the question, how you go about answering it with a combination of modeling experiments. How you can use technology to address apparently or only apparently simple questions.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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