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Researchers Figure Out the Reason for Your Cat's Weird Tongue with a Giant 3D Model

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Your cat’s cute lil’ pink tongue has long been a source of terror for anyone who has looked too closely at it. That’s because it’s covered with multitudes of tiny, backwards-facing spines made from keratin, also known as the stuff your fingernails are made of.

For larger cats, it was assumed that they had rough tongues to help them scrape bloody meat from bone — because your cat is nothing if not a scaled-down lion or tiger, never forget that — but now, researchers at Georgia Tech have uncovered another purpose to the many tiny hooks adorning a kitty’s tongue.

“In a single grooming sweep,” the researchers wrote, a cat’s tongue moves in four directions, helping untangle knots and realign individual hairs as it moves across its coat.

“When the tongue glides over fur, the hooks are able to lock onto tangles and snags,” lead author Alexis Noel, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering who presented her research at a physics conference this month, explained to the Washington Post. “As the snags pull on the hook, the hook rotates, slowly teasing the knot apart. Much like claws, the front of the spine is curved and hook-like. So when it encounters a tangle, it is able to maintain contact, unlike a standard hairbrush bristle, which would bend and let the tangle slide off the top.”

Noel’s team uncovered this with the aid of a 3D-printed, 400-times-actual-size scale model of a cat tongue. It showed how the spines lie flat when not in “lick mode,” which lets collected fur slide off — counter-intuitively, into your cat’s stomach, where it gets balled up and puked out in the manner of time immemorial.

Also, here’s our PEOPLE Pets editor Kelli Bender trying out a tool that lets people groom their cats with a prosthetic cat tongue.

Now, at some point, you’re probably going to ask why this is a thing that matters. Well, there are two important fields that this research affects. One is “soft robotics,” which involves making malleable robots that are suited for maneuvering small or fragile spaces, like in surgeries, for instance; and the other is also medically-related — mimicking cat-tongue technology in brushes could lead to new advances in wound-cleaning technology. And yeah, it’ll probably create a better hairbrush at some point, too.