Cat tongue spines help smear saliva and inspire new 3D-printed brush

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Tiger tongues are not easy to come by. So when 15-year-old Sumatran tiger Kavi died at an Atlanta zoo in 2016, Alexis Noel and David Hu made sure they had dibs on his tongue.

It joined specimens from five other cat species — lion, tiger, cougar, bobcat and domestic cat — in a study of microscopic tongue structure.

And it turns out your pet moggie’s tongue isn’t much different to its big cat counterparts. It’s covered in syringe-like spines that smear saliva deep into thick fur.

Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, the Georgia Institute of Technology pair took inspiration from their findings to 3D print a flexible brush.

They say it could be used to help apply skin ointments on pets or by the textiles industry to detangle delicate fibres without damaging them.

Watch a cat for any length of time, and you’ll see they spend plenty of time contorting themselves to lick every bit of fur possible.

Grooming not only helps remove dirt and other debris, but it also acts like an evaporative cooler.

To see how their tongue helps them stay cool and clean — and to see if it’s the same across cat species — Dr Noel and Dr Hu first had to get their hands on some samples.

The tiger tongue, for instance, came from the Atlanta zoo.

The rest came from a wildlife rescue facility in Tennessee — “sort of like a ranch for big cats”, Dr Hu said — and taxidermists.

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