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Why the Inside of a Camel's Mouth Looks Like a Sarlacc Pit

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Flickr user AnneLeroy

If you can get over the whole spitting thing, camels are pretty cute—at least until they open up their mouths. It's like staring into the Sarlacc pit from Return of the Jedi. What are those little fleshy things? What purpose do they serve? What is going on here?

The things in the camel's mouth are oral papillae, and they're totally normal, says Luis Padilla, Director of Animal Health at the St. Louis Zoo. "Papillae are projections or raised structures found in different parts of the mouth, internal cheeks, and tongues of some species," he says. "There are many kinds of papillae. Most have simply a mechanical function, but some have a sensory function, either positional sensation or they may have taste buds on them. In ruminants, the ones on the cheek and esophagus can be extremely large, as what you see in the picture." 

When the papillae's function is purely mechanical, Padilla says, they're usually cone- or triangular-shaped, and work in conjunction with the tongue and the muscles of the mouth to help manipulate food in one direction, typically toward the stomach (which means that a camel's mouth has more in common with the Sarlacc pit than just looks!). Camels need those big papillae because of what they're eating. "Swallowing chewed leaves and sticks without some sort of mechanical assistance can be hard," Padilla says. "The papillae are sort of firm—they can be partially keratinized—and can feel almost like plastic. In the areas where they are keratinized, the papillae protect the cheek and mouth from getting scratched, abraded, poked, perforated, or injured." Though all camelids have papillae, size and shape can vary, and they can be affected by the animals' health, according to Padilla. "Blunting of the papillae or ulcerated papillae are signs of certain disease conditions," he says.

Many different kinds of animals have papillae, including humans. "There are lots of tiny papillae in the human mouth, especially on the tongue," Padilla says. "Humans and most primates do not have papillae as big as camels’ or other ruminants’. Because of our masticatory adaptations and diet, we don’t really need them to keep food flowing in one direction on the lining of our cheek or esophagus." (Also important to note: "Taste buds sit on top of a specialized kind of papilla," Padilla says, "but not all papillae are taste buds.")

But look inside the mouths of many fish-eating birds, reptiles, and fish, and you'll find varying types of papillae. "There are actually about 10 to 15 types of papillae based on their shape, location, and function," Padilla says. "These papillae are so large and elaborate in some species—like penguins or sea turtles—that once you put something in their throat, it can be sort of difficult to pull it back." And they're not just found in the mouth; Padilla says papillae can be found in some other parts of the gastrointestinal system, including the stomach, esophagus, and rumen of certain species; depending on the animal, and the location of the papillae, proportions and firmness vary. Sea turtles, for example, have pretty soft papillae.

Back to camels, though—there's one more thing Padilla wants to point out about that mouth. "In some of the photos [on the Internet], you see the really impressive canine teeth of some male camels," he says. "These can be pretty dangerous."

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AnneLeroy; used with permission.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages

Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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