Tongue-Fu Masters

Meet the animals that have got the competition licked when it comes to tongue superpowers


A tongue that goes from 0-60 in 1/100th of a second

Chameleons are the owners of probably the most famous tongues in the world. They’re able to launch their licker roughly twice their body length in a matter of milliseconds; scaled up to our size, proportionately this would equate to us having a tongue more than three metres (ten feet) long!

A recent study found one small species of chameleon (Rhampholeon spinosus) could accelerate its elasticated tongue at 264 times the force of gravity (264 g); for context, NASA’s Space Shuttle only experienced 3 g when it launched.

Having fascinated biologists for centuries, there have been many explanations put forward as to how this extraordinary organ works, including a type of ‘super-muscle’ or even a sudden rush of air or blood. We now know the secret lies in a combination of bone, muscle and collagen all working together in a structure that stores energy – a bit like the tautened string of a bow before an arrow is fired. With a deadly mix of reach, speed and precision, once these lizards have a victim in their sights, it’s pretty much sayonara.


The birds that have mastered the tongue-twister

A crash-helmet-like skull isn’t the only impressive anatomical ace up a woodpecker’s wing! They’re also equipped with a sticky licker that can extend up to 12–15 centimetres (five to six inches) in certain species. After hammering a hole into a tree, their secret weapon is deployed to sweep the interior for bugs.

Depending on their diet, woodpecker tongues vary in shape and size, having specialised for certain food types. For instance, some are barbed for harpooning larvae, while the tongues of ‘sapsuckers’ are tipped by a brush-like feature.

One thing that remains true for all woodpeckers is that their tongues are far too big to fit in their beaks alone. Instead, the organ forks at the back of the throat and coils around the back of the brain. It’s anchored to a bone-and-cartilage structure called the hyoid horns. Contracting and relaxing muscles around this wishbone-shaped feature enables a woodpecker to shoot out and retract its tongue in the blink of an eye.


Snakes’ forked tongues help them to smell

 Although snakes do have nostrils, these are mainly used for respiration. For smelling – a key sense given these reptiles’ generally poor eyesight – they rely mainly on their tongues.

Whenever you see a snake flicking its tongue in and out, it’s essentially collecting a sample of air. The tongue gathers particles from its surroundings then delivers them to two ducts in the roof of its mouth leading to the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s organ. Hardwired to the snake’s brain, here the gathered scents are processed to ascertain whether the serpent is in close proximity to a potential mate, rivals or prey.

The system is so finely tuned that each branch of the forked tongue can be analysed independently, meaning it knows whether to go left or right to track down the source.

Blue-tongued skink

Sticking your tongue out can scare off enemies

As youngsters, we’re often told that sticking out our tongues is impolite and childish, but for Australia’s blue-tongued skinks (also known as ‘bluetongues’) this simple act can be the difference between life and death. Whenever they come under attack, their first line of defence is to open their bright pink mouth as wide as possible, start hissing loudly and stick out their vivid blue tongue. This sudden display of dazzling colour and noise, as well as an apparent increase in head and body size, is sometimes all it takes to put off a hungry bird or snake thinking of making a meal of the skink.

If this scare tactic doesn’t have the desired effect, bluetongues have another trick up their sleeve… or at least up their tail. Should a predator try to grab one of these lizards, they’re able to detach their tails and scurry away to live another day. It’s not a permanent loss; skinks have the ability to regrow this lost appendage.


Hummingbird tongues keep them in the ‘dolce vita’

 Given their frenetic pace of life and high metabolism, some hummingbirds have to consume as much as 100, 200 or even 300 per cent of their body weight in nectar every day! That requires them to eat a sugary snack every ten minutes or so. To keep up with this marathon meal schedule they have had to evolve some superior feeding hardware.

While everyone knows these birds use their long, narrow bills to plunder nectar from the bottom of flowers, not many realise what is going on inside the beak, namely, a forked tongue lapping as fast as 20 times a second!

For a long time scientists believed hummingbird tongues worked by capillary action – the same process that causes a sponge to soak up liquid. However, a study in 2015 shed new light on the mechanics of this avian super-tongue, indicating it works more like a tiny pump.

Words: Adam Millward