SCIENCE

Your Cat's Grooming Habits Could Solve A Huge Problem In Technology

A new study classifies the many unique ways mammals and insects keep clean.

While hair keeps animals warm, it also creates a daily burden of maintenance. Adult cats, for instance, spend up to 50 percent of their day grooming. 

But not all animals keep clean in the same way. Some work hard for it, while others have developed more efficient mechanisms.

According to a new study from David Hu, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, Guillermo Amador, understanding the different cleaning techniques that animals use could have implications for keeping man-made objects, including spaceships, free of pollutants and dirt.

“Drones and other autonomous rovers, including our machines on Mars, are susceptible to failure because of the accumulation of airborne particles," Hu said in a release.

The Georgia Tech team measured the surface area of 27 different mammals and insects and classified the many weird ways they keep clean.

“A honeybee’s true surface area is the size of a piece of toast,” Hu said. “A cat’s is the size of a ping pong table. A sea otter has as much area as a professional hockey rink.”

And with a larger surface area often comes a greater challenge of staying unsoiled. 

Dogs shake water off their backs, just like a washing machine,” Amador said. “Bees use bristled appendages to brush pollen off their eyes and bodies. Fruit flies use hairs on their head and thorax to catapult dust off of them at accelerations of up to 500 times Earth’s gravity.”

This, for instance, is a honeybee wiping pollen from its head.

Other species, however, are fortunate to have cleaning techniques that require no energy at all. One example, as highlighted in the study, is eyelashes, which "protect mammals by minimizing airflow and funneling particles away from eyes."

Cicada wings are also especially efficient. Research has found they actually clean themselves, causing filth to jump right off of them with the aid of dew.

“Understanding how biological systems, like eyelashes, prevent soiling by interacting with the environment can help inspire low-energy solutions for keeping sensitive equipment free from dust and dirt,” Hu said.

As for whether NASA will model a future planetary rover after an eyelash or cicada wing, that remains to be seen.

The Georgia Tech team's study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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