When the wealthy sheik in Qatar asked me if I wanted to enter the enclosure to pet his cheetah, I said, “I didn’t come all the way to Qatar to not pet a cheetah.” So I walked in and took a knee. The cheetah approached my outstretched hand and licked it with a tongue reminiscent of my carpenter father’s coarsest sandpaper (about a P40 for you grit fans). Other than that grating introduction the animal and I got along fine.
That feline tongues are rough is no surprise to anyone who’s experienced a housecat lick. And one function of that very uneven surface is to comb the cat’s fur and keep it exceptionally clean—in part to reduce any odors that could tip off a mouse or other prey item that the cat is sneaking up behind them. A cat’s jaw and tongue, meanwhile drive felines' unusual lapping behavior, trapping water in a column to bite off. Take a close-up look at the structures that give the housecat’s tongue its unique properties. And think about what a motivated cheetah could have done to my hand.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Steve Mirsky was the winner of a Twist contest in 1962, for which he received three crayons and three pieces of construction paper. It remains his most prestigious award. Follow Steve Mirsky on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins
Lydia Chain is a freelance science journalist, podcaster, and videographer. She hosts Undark's podcast, and also writes about nature, the environment, and evolution, especially when it involves the intersection of humans and wild spaces or animals behaving strangely. Follow Lydia Chain on Twitter