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Feline Physics: Why Cats Can Survive Falls From Great Heights

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The other night, I watched a YouTube video featuring a woman standing on her bed, holding a cat upside down by its feet, then repeatedly dropping the cat onto the mattress. Amazingly, every time the cat was released, it immediately righted itself and landed on its feet.

The woman was performing the same basic experiment that French scientist Etienne Jules Marey did back in 1890. Marey, famous for investigations in which his chronophotographic camera was able to capture up to 60 consecutive frames a second, dropped a cat and filmed it. And yes, there’s a clip on YouTube:

The purpose of both of these videos was to demonstrate the cat’s unique innate ability to reorient its body during a fall. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the “righting reflex.” Animal experts say that the righting reflex is observable in kittens as early as three to four weeks, and is fully developed at seven weeks.

How does the righting reflex work?

First, cats have supersensitive sense organs. A vestibular apparatus in their inner ear acts as a balance and orientation compass. They always know right side up. Second, cats have a unique skeletal structure - an unusually flexible backbone and the absence of a collarbone. So when a cat falls, its senses respond with lightning speed, and it is able to reorient its body and twist its head around so it can see where it’s going to land.

Beyond their amazing aerial spins, cats also have what could be called a built-in parachute. Like many small animals, they have a low body-volume-to-weight ratio, which when falling, allows them to slow their velocity by spreading out and becoming their own parachute. It’s the same kind of maneuver that flying squirrels do in mid-air.

But as amazing as their gravity-defying abilities are, cats are not invincible.

In 1987, veterinarians at New York City’s Animal Medical Center did a study of felines that had fallen from tall buildings. 90% of them survived, though most sustained serious injuries. Of those, more than one-third needed life-saving treatment, while just under a third required no treatment. What’s remarkable is that the study found that cats that fell from heights of 7 to 32 stories were less likely to die than those that fell from 2 to 6 stories.

Why? One theory is that after a certain distance, a cat reaches maximum speed and that vestibular mechanism in its ear shuts off. As a result, the cat relaxes. As any stuntman can tell you, relaxed limbs are less likely to break than unrelaxed ones. Another is that the greater height gives the cat time to adopt its parachute pose.

For those of you who enjoy physics, the “falling cat problem,” as it’s called, has been parsed in diagrams and technical language in online dissertations such as “Gauge Theory of the Falling Cat” and the Monty Python-ish sounding “Aerial Righting Reflexes in Flightless Animals.”

Then, of course, there's The Buttered Cat Paradox, which Miss Cellania discussed in great detail last year.

So over to you, cat owners. Any amazing stories of your kitty taking daredevil falls and landing on its feet?

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Animals
Why Your Cat Can't Roar, But Jungle Cats Can
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Your kitty may have the swagger of a mighty jungle cat, but it’s hard to take the tough cat act seriously once it opens its mouth. Unlike their roaring relatives, domestic cats have a high-pitched, mewling cry. However, they do purr—a trait that isn’t shared with lions, tigers, leopards, or jaguars, the four species of cats with loud, growling vocalizations.

In the video below, SciShow’s Hank Green explains the science behind why your beloved ball of fur can’t roar—and how it’s linked to their ferocious cousins' lack of purring ability.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love to Knead?
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If you're a cat lover, chances are your favorite feline has shown a penchant for kneading, and at some point has given you and/or a favorite piece of furniture a massage with his or her rhythmic paws. Colloquially called “making biscuits,” kneading is a common behavior among kittens and adult cats alike—but animal experts still aren't sure exactly why they do it.

Scientists have a few theories, some of which SciShow’s Hank Green outlined in this fascinating video. One theory is that your cat's kneading is an attempt to mark its territory—yes, even if that “territory” is you—with the scent glands in its paws. Another rationale is that kneading is a neotenic behavior, or a juvenile trait that sticks with cats into adulthood. Kittens knead their mother's belly to stimulate milk production—an act that’s nearly identical to that strange, Shiatsu-like practice it’s doing in your lap. (This could also explain why some adult cats also "suckle" the items they're kneading.)

Green does point out that domestic cats knead, whereas wild cats don’t, which raises the question: Why have only domestic felines retained this behavior? Green attributes this to the fact that house cats were selected over thousands of years for their friendlier, less aggressive traits, but says they've "probably also held on to some of their more social, baby-like behavior, just because it serves them well when they’re around people."

"I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but wildcats are not super social," Green jokes. "They don’t come up and cuddle, so much as try to eat your flesh. Felis silvestris, the ancestor of all domestic cats, is a solitary hunter that only socializes with members of its own species when it’s time to breed. So wildcats only developed social behaviors for two situations”—mating and caretaking behaviors between mother cats and their kittens.

“Unlike wild cats though, domesticated cats have a lot of social behaviors as adults, because they’re not wild loners anymore," Green adds. "They have us to cuddle with, con treats out of, and demand food from. So their innate tendencies for snuggling with mom and hitting on the lady cats are put to good use on us."

While occasionally painful or bothersome, kneading one’s owner is definitely a loving act on the part of the cat, a way of letting you know that it feels comfortable and safe with you. That said, don't sweat it if your cat isn’t big on the habit—or, conversely, worry that it kneads too much.

“Some cats are more needy and knead more than others,” Dr. Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor,” advised one anxious reader who reported that her kitty had taken to kneading the family dog. “This behavior is exacerbated when a cat is weaned from its mother too soon. It’s an anxious cat’s way of seeking contact comfort.”

If you’re not a fan of kneading, it's futile to train your cat to cease a perfectly natural behavior. Instead, consider investing in a pair of nail clippers—and when you’ve finally had enough, gently push the cat away and enjoy the fleeting freedom of an empty lap.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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