The Reason Cats Almost Always Land On Their Feet

Cats have the dubious distinction being role models for burglars. It's not (just) because those feisty felines are thieving sociopaths; they have an almost supernatural nimbleness that seemingly enables them to land on their feet even when they plummet from tremendous heights. For instance, in 2012, one kitty cat named Sugar fell from the 19th floor of a Boston high-rise and didn't lose a single one of her nine lives, walking away with just a bruised chest. That seems physically impossible in more ways than one. 

Not only does that make cats seem somewhat indestructible, but the actual physics of it is baffling. When cats fall, they twist and turn themselves through the air to achieve the optimal landing position, all while appearing not to push against anything. The process stumped scientists for centuries, per physicist and author Greg Gbur (via Ars Technica). So what gives cats this amazing ability?

Cats are natural born bird-killers and squirrel-killers and mouse-killers — okay, just killers — who were actually evolutionarily adapted to live in trees before humans decided they were too cute to be that far from the ground. Though Whiskas and Fancy Feast has eliminated the need for tree-climbing abilities in house cats, the beasts are still built for climbing and falling. Jim Usherwood of the Royal Veterinary College explained to BBC that "cats have long, compliant legs" and muscles that "divert energy into decelerating rather than breaking bones." Moreover, feline spines are freakishly flexible, enabling what is called the "righting reflex," according to Live Science. This is what allows cats to position themselves properly for a landing.

How do cats know which way to twist when falling through the air? The answer is in their ears. As Animal Planet explains, cats have an extremely well-developed vestibular system. That's the mechanism in your inner ear that regulates balance. A feline's inner ear has millions of hairs and a crystal-filled fluid that work in concert to transmit movement-related information to the cat's brain. So once human burglars learn to do that, they'll no longer have to look up to falling cats.