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Feline Physics: Why Cats Can Survive Falls From Great Heights

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Cat image via Shutterstock

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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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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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environment
How Japan's 'Dancing' Cats Predicted a Deadly Environmental Disaster
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In the 1950s, residents of Minamata, Japan, noticed that something was wrong with the city's cats. As the SciShow's Hank Green recounts in the video below, the cats would convulse, make strange noises and jerking "dancing" motions—and eventually die. Soon, these symptoms spread to the local townspeople, and scientists began searching for the cause of the terrifying sickness.

The culprit was soon revealed to be the Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company with a factory in Minamata. About 30 years earlier, the company had begun making an organic chemical called acetaldehyde, using mercury as a catalyst to trigger the needed reactions. Afterwards, the company dumped the leftover chemicals into Minamata Bay, where the mercury came into contact with bacteria that transformed it into the most noxious form of the metal: methylmercury. This toxic substance was absorbed by plants, which were in turn eaten by fish. Eventually, the methylmercury made its way up the food chain and poisoned both felines and humans. Birth defects became rampant, and more than 900 people died. Thousands of victims have since been identified. The neurological syndrome caused by extreme mercury poisoning is now known as Minamata disease.

You can learn more about the worst mercury poisoning disaster the world has ever seen by watching the video below.

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