Why cats can survive falls that would kill any other animal

Cats can famously fall from skyscrapers and only suffer the most minor of bruises, including the recent story of a cat surviving a 19-story fall in Boston with only a bruised chest. What's the secret of this feline survival?

There's a great rundown of just how cats survive these falls over at BBC News, but 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. It's a remarkable feat of evolution, and well worth checking out the whole article for all the other ways in which cats can escape even the most apparently deadly of falls.

Image by Denys Shentiapin, via Shutterstock.