The smaller the chameleon, the stronger the tongue

6 Jan 2016

A new study into the remarkable tongue power of chameleons has found that smaller species pack a far more powerful punch.

Best known for their colour-coordinating fashion sense, chameleons have captured the attention of scientists for a long time.

One of the trending techniques for studying pretty much every living thing on Earth is using slow-mo cameras. In the past, we’ve seen studies on hummingbirds, for example, capturing just how fast their wings move – something impossible to portray to the naked eye.

Now, chameleon’s tongues are under the slow-mo microscope, with Christopher Anderson investigating 20 different species to establish how fast, and with what force, their tongues can strike prey.

A powerful suction punch

For those unaware of how chameleon’s tongues work, they shoot out of the mouth and act like suction devices, grabbing insects in an adhesive, form-fitting, interlocking hold.

Aimed like a dart, they basically thud right into the target, sticking to it and reeling it in for dinner.

Anderson – who has published his work in Nature – took the 20 species and put them in front of the camera, with a cricket right in front of them, and waited.

One by one, they each shot out their tongue, nabbed the critter and enjoyed a tasty snack. The results showed that the smaller species had tongues that stretched farther, relative to their body size, than their larger counterparts.

Speed kills

With the camera capturing 3000fps, the mode of attack was also quicker and more powerful among the tiniest species studied, the Rhampholeon spinosus.

The top speed was an incredible 2.59 meters per second, which allowed it to reach speeds of about 11mph in a fraction of a second.

This puts the tiny species second to only the salamander with regards to vertebrates’ power capabilities, and top dog of any reptile, bird or mammal.

The total power output of the plucky Rhampholeon spinosus chameleon’s tongue was 14,040 watts per kilogram.

Robot wars

Chameleon’s tongues have inspired scientific endeavors in the past, of course, with robotic team Festo engineering a device that replicates the tongue’s impact technique to help pick up objects.

Festo’s gripper is made from an elastic, silicone cap that adapts to the object it is targeting. It can pick up multiple things, holding many at a time, and reacts to pretty much any shape.

This could be incredibly useful for a range of industries, from automated picking businesses to user aids for those with physical difficulties.

Chameleon tongue image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic