How Is a Cat Like a Pingpong Table?

As it turns out, hair can add a lot of surface area to an animal, way more than you might initially guess. Alexander?Kharchenko/Oktay?Ortakcioglu/ThinkStock

Riddle me this, Batman: How is a cat like a pingpong table? If you answered that they both have the same surface area, you are correct!

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology did a meta-analysis on more than two dozen studies about animals and surface measurements. Specifically, they wanted to know how hair affects the amount of surface area an animal has, how that animal gets dirty and how it manages to clean itself. 

The Georgia Tech team looked at 27 different animals, including mammals and insects. They published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The report is titled “Cleanliness is next to godliness: mechanisms for staying clean.”

What did they learn? Well, besides the fact that your average sea otter has the same surface area as a professional hockey rink, they found that hair can aid in cleaning through two broad categories — renewable and nonrenewable strategies. 

Renewable strategies are passive (think eyelashes) while nonrenewable strategies require the animal to exert some energy to clean itself (think wet dog shaking itself off). Both strategies involve hair preventing dirt and grime from sticking to the animal, which makes it easier for the animal to clean itself.

This sort of information can be used to design sensors and electronics so that they prevent dirt, grime and pollutants from gumming up the works. The plan is to take the information gleaned from these studies and incorporate some of nature's designs into electronics. Whether or not that means your next thermostat will be hairy remains to be seen.

Here are some other fun facts uncovered by the research team:

·     A honeybee's surface area is the size of a piece of toast.

·     Honeybees and squirrels are equally hairy, with about 3 million hairs.

·     Butterflies and moths are particularly hirsute with around 10 billion hairs.

·     Humans have about 100,000 hairs on their heads (the author of this article is excluded from this statistic because nature can be cruel).

The Georgia Tech team found that a honeybees surface area is equal to a slice of toast. Who knew?