Here's the science behind 20 animal tongues.
Don't underestimate the tongue, a muscular organ that humans use for licking, breathing, tasting, swallowing and speaking. But this organ varies widely in color, shape, length and function across the animal kingdom. Whereas human tongues are pink and typically just over 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) long, the anteater has a 2-foot-long (60 cm) tongue and the blue-tongued skink, well …
Here's a look at 20 amazing animal tongues (including the chameleon's shown here) and the science behind them.
If you've ever seen a giraffe's impressive 21-inch-long (53 cm) tongue, you'll know that it's not pink. Rather, the tallest living animal in the world has a dark-colored tongue that looks like a mix of purple, blue and black. That's because giraffes (genus Giraffa) tongues are covered with a lot of the pigment melanin, which acts as a type of sunblock to protect the licker while it reaches for tender leaves, Live Science previously reported.
Giraffes have such long tongues that they can even use them to clean out their ears, according to Mental Floss.
The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) lives up to the "monster" part of its name with its forked tongue. It's thought that the gila's forked tongue helps it smell in "three dimensions," meaning that the two tips can pick up the same odor and then distinguish the wafting chemical gradients in the air, which, in turn, helps the reptile zero-in on the location of the smell's source, Andrew Durso, a herpetologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, wrote in The Conversation.
When the venomous lizard gets hungry, it flicks its sensitive tongue in and out, picking up chemical information about its surroundings. Then, the Gila monster's Jacobson's organ, a part of the olfactory (smelling) system in its nasal chamber, analyzes this information, letting the lizard know whether potential prey, such as small mammals, frogs, lizards, rodents and insects, are nearby, Live Science previously reported.
As the only known mammal with scales, pangolins are weird creatures. Their sticky tongues are just as strange. The pangolin's tongue is connected not to the bottom of its mouth, but to the bottom of its ribcage. When it's not busy snatching up insects, such as ants and termites, the tongue hangs out in the pangolin's chest cavity, Live Science previously reported.
When the pangolin's tongue is extended, it can measure up to 16 inches (40 cm) long, or longer than the animal's head and body combined, according to the BBC.
The tongue of the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is surprisingly long, measuring up to 10 inches (25 cm), the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre reports. This feature helps the bear channel its inner Winnie the Pooh; its lengthy tongue can extract honey from beehives, a trick that landed it the nickname of "honey bear," according to National Geographic.
Much of the hippo's evolutionary history remains shrouded in mystery, according to National Geographic. Their giant tongues are no exception. In a 2010 study published in the journal The Anatomical Record, researchers looked at the tongues of a young and old common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius amphibius) with scanning electron microscopy and conventional light microscopy. (The 49-year-old female hippo's tongue was 24 inches (60 cm) long, while the 4-year-old male's was 18 inches (45 cm) long.)
The team found that hippo tongues have features similar to a few types of animals: odd-toed ungulates (such as donkeys, which digest plant cellulose in the intestines, not the stomach), ruminants (such as cattle, which have four-chambered stomachs) and omnivorous, non-ruminant mammals (such as pigs, which have simple stomachs).
Meanwhile, hippos use their three-chambered stomachs to help them digest grass. The animal's herbivorous diet and unique evolutionary history may explain "these mixed morphological features of the tongue," the researchers wrote in the study.
Which tongue has more bristles than a hairbrush? It's none other than the penguin's.
The penguin's tongue does not have taste buds, but it does have loads of bristles made out of keratin, the fibrous protein that makes up human hair and nails. These bristles help the penguin grab wriggly krill and fish, according to the Smithsonian.
Woodpecker tongues — made of bone, cartilage and muscle — need to be really, really long so the birds can nab grubs hiding deep in trees. But a woodpecker's mouth isn't big enough to house that long tongue. So, what's the workaround? When it's not in use, the tongue goes into "self storage" by wrapping around the woodpecker's skull.
"The cordlike base of the tongue extends back out of their mouth on each side, winding behind and onto the top of their head, sometimes extending so far forward that it reaches the nostril," Larry Witmer, a professor of anatomy and paleontology with the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Ohio University, told Live Science. "When they need to unleash the weapon, the tongue basically unwinds from around the head to project into a crevice to capture its prey. It's a remarkable mechanism that's evolved independently in several kinds of birds, including hummingbirds."
You can check out this video of Witmer describing a red-bellied woodpecker skull and tongue.
This technically isn't a real tongue; it's a parasite that destroys a fish's tongue and then becomes a "substitute" tongue. In other words, this bug-like creature (Cymothoa Exigua) is a tongue-eating parasite.
After the parasite enters through the fish's gills, it latches onto the tongue with its seven pairs of legs and (brace yourself) begins to feed on the tongue like a vampire. Soon, the tongue withers and drops off, but the parasite remains, masquerading as the fish's new tongue, Live Science previously reported.
Just like other cats, the mighty lion (Panthera leo) uses its tongue to groom its fur. Feline tongues are very effective combs; they're covered with tiny spines known as papillae, which are sharp, hollow and curved backward toward the cat's throat, according to a 2018 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These spines help the cat deliver cleansing saliva to its fur, which later cools the cat as it evaporates.
Cats don't care whether their prey tastes sweet, however. Their tongues have a useless version of the gene Tas1r2, which encodes proteins that combine to form sugar-detecting sensors on the tongue, National Geographic reported.
Giant leaf-tailed geckos
Watch out! If the giant leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) feels threatened, it will make sure you do, too. When this gecko is disturbed, it opens its jaws wide, flashing its bright red mouth and tongue before it releases a piercing distress call that sounds just like a child's scream, Smithsonian's National Zoo reports.
Frogs are famous for their fast tongues, and for good reason. More than 4,000 frog species can grab objects with their tongues faster than the human eye can blink, according to the website of Alexis Noel, a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute who studies frog and cat tongues. She noted that frog mouths have a unique anatomy: "Unlike humans, frog tongues are connected at the front of the lower jaw, rather than at the back of the throat."
In addition to its speed, the frog tongue is strong. The tongue of the horned frog can pull objects that are about 1.4 times the frog's body weight, a 2014 study in the journal Scientific Reports found.
Blue-tongued skinks, natives of Australia and New Guinea, use their vibrant blue tongue to startle predators, according to the San Diego Zoo. When threatened, the skink puffs up its body so that it appears larger, opens its mouth and hisses while it sticks out its tongue.
Eagles have tongues with backward-facing barbs called "rear-directed papillae," which help them swallow prey, according to the Center for Conservation Biology, a research group at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Commonwealth University. When eagle parents are feeding their young, they use their tongues to help keep away large bones, furry chunks and sharp fins that could cause the chicks to choke, according to the Raptor Resource Project, a nonprofit bird group based in Iowa.
Alligator snapping turtles
The alligator-snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) has a clever trick; it uses its little pink tongue as a fishing lure. While these turtles are known to forage for food along the bottoms of rivers, lakes and swamps, they can also lie still with their mouths open and tongues wriggling, as they wait to ambush fish that mistake their tongues for worms, according to the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species program of the U.S. Geological Survey.
How do parrots and parakeets (a type of parrot) mimic human speech? It turns out that Polly can adjust her nimble, muscular tongue so that it modulates the sound coming from her voice box, according to Science magazine. In one small experiment, repositioning the tongue of five dead monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), whose vocal tracts were connected to speaker systems, led to changes in pitch and loudness, which is key for forming vowels in speech, according to a 2004 study in the journal Current Biology.
While humans might take note of the emperor tamarin's distinctive mustache, its fellow emperor tamarins (Saguinus imperator) may have their eyes on something else: the tongue. When these primates are displeased, they tend to flick their tongues, quickly moving the tongue in and out of the mouth, according to Apenheul Primate Park, a zoo in the Netherlands. The emperor tamarin also communicates with chirps, whistles and facial expressions, which, combined with tongue flicking, help keep its troop together and alert to danger, according to Zoo New England in Massachusetts.
That hairy appendage dangling out of a fly's mouth may look like a tongue, but it's not. Scientists call it the labellum, and it's the primary taste organ for the Drosophila fruit fly, according to a report from Indiana Public Media. The labellum is attached to the fly's straw-like proboscis, which allows the pest to slurp up food. A word to the wise: Put your leftovers away if you've got a fly problem. These buzzing beasties puke saliva and digestive juices onto food before eating it, because these acids dissolve the food the fly wants to suck up, according to HowStuffWorks.
The giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) doesn't have teeth, but it doesn't need them; instead, it uses its roughly 2-foot-long (60 cm) tongue to eat up to 30,000 ants and termites a day, according to the San Diego Zoo. This narrow and spaghetti-like tongue, which is attached to the mammal's sternum, is covered with tiny, backward-pointing spines and sticky saliva to help it grab the tiny insects. The anteater's tongue is fast, too — it can dart in and out of its mouth up to 150 times a minute.
Chameleons are relatively slow creatures, but their 20-inch-long (50 cm) tongues are fast enough to catch speedy insects, such as locusts, mantids and grasshoppers. The tip of the chameleon's tongue is a ball of muscle, and once it hits prey, that ball transforms into a suction cup. The instant the prey is stuck, the reptile draws its tongue back into its mouth, where its strong jaws crush the catch, according to the San Diego Zoo.
Hummingbird tongues were misunderstood for more than 180 years, until a 2015 study set the record straight. Initially, scientists thought that hummingbird tongues used capillary action — in which liquid can flow through narrow channels, even against gravity — to pull up floral nectar. But actually, these tongues act as elastic micropumps, according to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
High-speed videos showed that the hummingbird flattens the tip of its outstretched tongue against a desirable flower, then reshapes its tongue so it can fill with nectar. Next, the top of the tongue (the part by the mouth) bends, which produces elastic energy that can draw the nectar out of the flower. This process lets the bird slurp up its food at fast speeds, the study found.
Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.
Hello, I don't mean to nitpick, but the picture of the frog is photo-shopped. No real frog that we know of has the iconic chameleon tongue that is famous in pop culture, although there is a species of newt that has that. Real frogs have short, fat, almost human-like tongues. Goodbye and thank you for listening to my ramblings.Reply