Cats are bizarre and perhaps alien creatures. They’re excellent hunters, with superb night vision and stealth capabilities. They can leap with great power and precision and survive falls from extraordinary heights— like from a 20 story building— with only a bit of bruising. What is the secret to a cat’s super ability to survive such falls? Magic. Evil, black magic.
The short answer is that it’s all about evolution. Domesticated cats are the descendants of arboreal creatures that had to be able to survive the occasional fall while jumping from tree branch to tree branch. That’s added up to an amazing biological toolkit that helps ensure their survival, even when falling from dozens of stories up. The BBC article explains all the major keys:
They have a relatively large surface area in proportion to their weight, thus reducing the force at which they hit the pavement. Cats reach terminal velocity, the speed at which the downward tug of gravity is matched by the upward push of wind resistance, at a slow speed compared to large animals like humans and horses. For instance, an average-sized cat with its limbs extended achieves a terminal velocity of about 60mph, while an average-sized man reaches a terminal velocity of about 120mph…
Through natural selection, cats have developed a keen instinct for sensing which way is down, analogous to the mechanism humans use for balance, biologists say. Then - if given enough time - they are able to twist their bodies like a gymnast, astronaut or skydiver and spin their tails in order to position their feet under their bodies and land on them.
That last trick is known as the aerial righting reflex, and it is crucial to their survival. With their legs in the right place, they can effectively act as shock absorbers for the rest of the body, and their muscles are able to essentially channel the kinetic energy of the fall so that it decelerates the cat as opposed to breaking all its bones. The fact that cats’ legs are angled away from the body, unlike human legs which extend straight down, also helps spread around the force of collision and minimizes the risk of death or even just injury.
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