Tongues: They Do More Than Just Lick

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The tongue helps us to taste and talk and swallow, but when compared with tongues in other species, ours are pretty boring. Here are some examples:

The alligator snapping turtle has a worm-shaped bit on the end of its tongue. The turtle lies motionless in the water, mouth open, until a fish swims in, lured by the tongue, and then the turtle quickly closes the trap.

Chameleons shoot their sticky tongues out of their mouths at high speed to catch a meal. Biologists using high-speed and X-ray photography calculated the chameleon's tongue speed to be 13.4 miles per hour.

The tongue of a salamander shoots out to capture fast-moving bugs in an explosive burst of energy, reaching 18,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle.

The shape of the snake's forked tongue, with which it both tastes and smells, gives it directional information.

A giraffe uses its tongue to reach around acacia thorns and grab the tasty leaves. The 18- to 20-inch-long tongue is blue-black, and the color probably protects it from sunburn.

The hummingbird drinks nectar with its tongue. For more than a century scientists thought that this tongue worked like a straw, but new research reveals that it is more like a fork with tiny fringes that trap the fluid.

Cats lap up liquid not like a ladle, scooping it up, but instead curl their tongues backward and use hydrodynamics to bring up a little milk or water in each sip. The sandpaper-like tongue also gets good use as a washcloth.

A blue-tongued skink uses its (yes, blue) tongue to startle and scare off enemies.

The giant anteater can cover its tongue with a sticky saliva to help it get ants. Up to two feet long but only half an inch thick, the tongue is one of few in the natural world that extends into the animal's thorax.

And though it's not a tongue, the tongue-eating louse (Cymothoa exigua) cannot go unmentioned. This tiny parasite enters a fish through its gills, attaches itself to the fish's tongue and starts feeding on tongue blood. The tongue eventually atrophies and the louse replaces it in the fish's mouth.

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