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Tiny Chameleon’s Tongue Can Beat the Fastest Sports Car

The Rosette-nosed Pygmy Chameleon can launch its tongue toward prey at 8,500 feet per second

Trioceros hoehnelii, one of the 20 chameleons whose tongues a researcher tested for speed (Christopher Anderson via Brown University/Youtube.com)
smithsonian.com

Chameleon tongues are fast—they must be to snatch insects from their perches before the prey can leap or fly away. But now scientists have measured exactly how fast tongues of different chameleons fly, and surprisingly the smallest chameleon’s tongues pack the biggest punch.

The unfurling of Rhampholeon spinosus's elastic, sticky tongue involves an acceleration of the specialized muscle of up to 264 times the force of gravity, writes Tim Redford for The Guardian. In comparison, he adds, NASA’s space shuttle accelerates to 3 g to propel itself into orbit—jet fighters flying F-16s only reach 7g when they pull out of a dive. That makes the little lizard capable of some of the greatest acceleration of any reptile, bird or mammal, researchers report in a paper published in Scientific Reports.

Christopher V. Anderson, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, filmed chameleons from 20 different species as they gave tethered insects a tongue-lashing in front of the camera (he suspended crickets for the lizards to target). A film speed of 3,000 frames per second recorded the the distances and velocity of the sticky attack and from that Anderson calculated the peak acceleration.

He found that chameleons tongues can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a hundredth of a second, “twice as fast as the fastest car,” reports Claire Asher for Science. The winner of fastest tongue in Anderson’s lab goes to the R. spinousalso called the Rosette-nosed Pygmy Chameleon. The lizard can shoot its tongue out 2.5 times the length of its body at about 8,500 feet per second. 

The fact that the speediest chameleon tongue belongs to a tiny member of the group actually makes sense. The muscles that power the tongue are comparatively larger on the small body of the pygmy chameleon. Since small animals need more energy per unit of body weight to survive, theses creatures evolved more powerful tongues, writes Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post

Still, the speedy tongue flick doesn’t beat the accelerations of some insects—jumping leafhoppers can reach 23,100 feet per second and Plethodontid salamanders can flick their tongues at an impressive 14,700 feet per second, Anderson writes.

But with a tongue speed much faster than previous recordings for chameleons, the little guys can definitely hold their own.

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