Commentary

Crowd-Sourced Science

Cat-Milk

The real power of social media is sometimes best illustrated by an unexpected convergence with another discipline -- in this case, scientific investigation. And it can't hurt when the subject under investigation is that universal comical Internet meme, the kitty cat.

Roman Stocker, an associate professor at M.I.T. who studies the fluid mechanics and ecology of microorganisms, was curious to know precisely how cats imbibe liquids. This isn't as weird a question as it might seem, because it turns out cats have a very unusual (and highly efficient) way of lapping up liquids: their tongue curls backwards, not forwards, scooping up liquid with the back or underside of the tongue.

But this still left a lot of questions unanswered. For one thing, it seemed like it ought to be physically impossible for cats to consume the amount of liquid they do with their backward-tongue technique in such a short period of time. So what was going on?

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Part of the problem is that they drink very, very fast: their tongue laps at the rate of four sips per second, equaling about a meter of motion per second, making it difficult to see what is actually going on. But if you are a scientist with some free time and a high-speed camera, the solution is obvious.

After filming his own cat, Cutta Cutta, in the act of imbibing, Stocker and his colleague Pedro Reis found that the cat's tongue assumes a flat shape in the milliseconds before touching the liquid, then hits the liquid in a precise fashion to form a column of liquid in mid-air behind its tongue. The cat's lower jaw catches the liquid in mid-air before it begins to fall again, while the tongue goes back for more.

Interestingly, Stocker and his colleagues also developed a theory that the tongue-lapping rate at which cats drink liquids appeared to vary with the animal's mass, with smaller animals lapping at a lower rate. But how could they put this hypothesis to the test?

Enter social media: unsurprisingly, there are innumerable videos on YouTube showing cats of all sizes drinking, from lions filmed by tourists on safari to the tens of thousands -- nay, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions -- of videos that people have uploaded of their house pets. Indeed, a search for "cat drinking" on YouTube returned 5,040 results, most of which delivered the promised content (including the expected comical mishaps, as well as cats drinking a variety of unusual liquids like Coca-Cola, lemonade, coffee, tea, beer, Scotch, rum, gin, and vodka).

You can check out a video on the NYT Web site about the study here .

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