There are many sayings about cats. One is that cats have nine lives. Another is that cats always land on their feet. Now, that first saying is probably definitely incorrect. People might think it is true because of the second saying.
In 1894, French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey used a chronophotographic camera to capture 60 frames per second of a cat’s fall. This let him watch the cat falling in slow-motion and learn how cats land on their feet. Marey saw the cat first twist its head until it was upright, then twist the back of its body to match the direction of the head, and then finally arch its back.
This reflex is called the righting reflex. They start to develop this reflex at three weeks old and perfect it by seven weeks old. For balance and orientation, cats use the vestibular apparatus in their ears. With this, they can meticulously determine in any position which direction is up and which one is down. This also helps them figure out which way to rotate their heads and to what degree they should rotate it. Cats also have an incredibly flexible spine made up of 30 vertebrae. This spine helps them correct themselves very easily.
In 1987, the New York City Animal Medical Center analyzed records of cats who had fallen from buildings made up of many stories. They found that 90 percent of cats who had fallen and landed on concrete had survived. Additionally, 37 percent of the cats had needed emergency care. Cats who fell from a height of 7 to 32 stories had fewer injuries than the cats who fell from 2 to 6 stories. At first scientists thought it was strange that cats who fell from a shorter height had more injuries than cats who fell from a larger height. But then they realized that when cats fall from a higher height, they have more time to twist their bodies to make sure they land properly on the ground.
Plus, while they are falling, cats stretch their legs out (kind of like a flying squirrel), enabling them to create air resistance. It is sort of like they turn themselves into parachutes! Making themselves into “parachutes” slows down their velocity to 60 miles per hour. A human’s velocity can end up being 120 miles per hour, giving cats a 60 mile per hour difference! Although they look thin and small, cats’ legs are very muscular. This helps them not only climb trees and jump around, but it also absorbs shock which is especially useful when they are jumping to the ground.
Cats twist themselves and bend themselves in half. This sort of behavior can help in robotics, an area involving both engineering and computer science. It involves designing and operating robots. Scientists have been able to create robots that mimic cats’ “bend-and-twist” method of landing on their feet. So far, robots that mimic cats have been unable to land on their “feet” from their starting position. When a robot falls, it has a chance of breaking, but if it is able to bend and twist itself to land on the ground safely, or at least in a more safe way than it was able to in the past, roboticists could be a little less worried about their robots’ safety.
Although cats have an amazing ability of usually being able to land on their feet, you should still make sure they are not jumping from windows. It is more difficult for overweight cats to be able to land on their feet because a heavier animal will reach the ground faster than a lighter animal so they will have less time to bend and twist themselves. If you live in a tall building and have a cat, it would be a good idea to keep windows closed or install window guards so that your cat(s) does not fall out. And, if your cat(s) has fallen, make sure they see the vet in case there are injuries you cannot spot.
Vaageesha Das is a junior at Morgantown High School.
Today’s information comes from:
Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.purina.co.uk/cats/behaviour-and-training/understanding-cat-behaviour/do-cats-land-on-their-feet; Gbur, G. (2020, April 07).
The enduring puzzle of why cats always land on their feet. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.sciencefocus.com/science/the-enduring-puzzle-of-why-cats-always-land-on-their-feet/; National Geographic.
Animal Mysteries: Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? | National Geographic. YouTube, 12 Jan. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2OCwQJSHZM.