What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?

iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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