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They’re sticky, they’re stretchy, they’re just plain long—here are seven of the most interesting tongues in the animal kingdom!

Smarter Every Day's video about chameleon tongues:

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[INTRO ♪].

Your tongue does a lot for you—it helps you swallow, taste your food, it does all of these extremely intricate things that my tongue is doing right now so that you can understand all the words—just, like, what does it do—so amazing! Blubliblibl-lah!

Maybe your tongue can perform cool tricks, like you can roll your tongue, or do that clover thing that people can do that's ... ueahhh ... ung ... Am I doing it? But when it comes to lingual feats, our species—while amazing—has nothing on the animals on this list.

They can do amazing things with their tongues, like catapult them out of their mouths, or use them to lure unsuspecting prey. These seven animals have some of the world’s longest, stretchiest, stickiest, trickiest, and just plain old weirdest tongues. If you’ve ever seen a chameleon grab a bug, you already know that their sticky tongues are quite impressive.

They can be more than twice as long as the animal’s body when fully stretched— proportionally, the longest of any vertebrate. And they can be launched with surprising speed and accuracy to capture prey. In fact, when a 2004 study used high-speed video and X-ray film to capture the tongues of two species in action, they found they rocketed out of their mouths at more than 20 kilometers per hour.

And a similar study in 2016 clocked the acceleration of one chameleon’s tongue at more than 2,590 meters per second squared— that’s over two hundred times the rate at which the fastest sports car can go from 0-100. Such speed takes a lot of power—more than ordinary muscles can provide. When scientists carefully dissected chameleon specimens in search of an explanation, they found a helix-structured sheath of elastic collagen tissue between the tongue’s anchoring bone and the accelerator muscle: a biological catapult.

Energy is stored in the collagen tissue as the muscles contract, and then this unique structure telescopes outward kind of like a spring when triggered. And if you want to watch this happen in, like, super slow motion, see what's going on? It's pretty amazing—Smarter Every Day did a great video we will link in the description.

So yeah, in addition to rapid color-changing and independently moving eyes, you can add spring-loaded tongues to the list of weird chameleon adaptations. Evolution might have gone a bit overboard with these guys. The South American tube-lipped nectar bat has an elongated lower lip that rolls up into a tube, hence the name.

But its lip isn’t what sets it apart from its closest relatives. That would be—you guessed it!—its tongue, which would make even Gene Simmons jealous. These bats’ tongues can be one and a half times the length of their bodies, or about 6 to 8 centimeters long—they’re not huge bats.

Proportionally, that’s the longest tongue of any mammal, and second only to chameleons among vertebrates. It’s so long that, instead of being anchored at the back of the mouth like in most mammals, it continues back through the neck all the way down into to the rib cage. The bat needs that length because of its special relationship with its food.

As their name implies, these bats feed on nectar, which is hiding at the base of the super elongated flowers. Their extra long tongues allow them to reach so deeply that they can feed from a plant none of their relatives can, which has flowers that are eight or nine centimeters long. And as far as scientists can tell, they’re the only pollinator for that plant’s flowers.

While lots of plants have similarly tight relationships with insects, this is the only known example of a plant relying so intimately upon a bat. And that makes the tube-lipped nectar bat’s incredibly long tongue vital to both species. Woodpeckers are so named for their somewhat annoying habit of banging on trees with their their chisel-like bills.

But that beak is only one of their tools they have for extracting the bugs they eat— the second is their super long, narrow tongue. In fact, their tongues make them somewhat harder to study than other species, as they can get horribly tangled in the fine nets ornithologists use to capture birds. Most woodpeckers have backwards-facing barbs near the tips of their tongues, which let them use them like a spear or a rake to drag insects out of holes in the tree bark.

And they’re coated in sticky saliva, which also helps with the bug-slurping. But what really makes these tongues interesting is where the birds put them when they’re not in use. A woodpecker’s tongue can be several times longer than its bill, so when it’s retracted, it coils around the skull, sometimes so far that part of the structure supporting it pokes into the bird’s nostril.

That structure is called the hyoid— the bone that an animal’s tongue muscles are typically attached to. In woodpeckers, the ends of this horseshoe-shaped bone wrap back around the skull and sometimes even connect. The hyoid both holds the tongue in place and acts as a shock absorber for the skull, helping protect it during all that drumming action.

A tongue bone that doubles as a skull harness is definitely weird enough to make this list. You may have heard of pangolins for the saddest of reasons: some estimate they account for 20% of the world’s illegal wildlife trade. That’s because, instead of hair, they’re covered in keratin scales, which are believed to have all sorts of mystical powers.

There are eight pangolin species distributed across Asia and Africa, some of which have declined as much as 80% in the last decade thanks mostly to poaching. And it’s a shame they’re so well known for their scaly armor when their tongues are so weird. Extended to full length, pangolin tongues are longer than their bodies.

They’re so long that they’re actually anchored at the base of the rib cage instead of the throat, kind of like those little bats we talked about. And inside is a solid rod of cartilage which contains an artery that supplies blood to tissue in the tongue to stiffen it. If that sounds kind of like the erectile tissue in a penis?

Yeah, it’s—it's basically the same idea. Keeping the tongue rigid helps with thrusting it into ant and termite colonies to extract the bugs the animal feeds on. The pangolin’s other common name is “scaly anteater.” And that stiff tongue is also coated in sticky saliva, so when the pangolin retracts it out of the insect colony, it is covered in yummy treats.

The insects are then scraped off at the entrance to the animal’s throat with a specialized hyoid bone, as pangolins don’t have any teeth. Also, their babies are called pangopups. That’s not really relevant to tongues, or really anything.

It’s just something you need to know. The enormous, prehistoric-looking alligator snapping turtle is found in rivers and lakes in the southeastern U. S.

But even though they’re the largest freshwater turtle in North America, they can be hard to spot, because they spend most of their lives underwater. They’ll remain submerged for almost an hour at a time, much of which they spend patiently waiting for their food to come to them. Which it does, because the turtles use worm-shaped protrusions from their tongues as bait.

The technical term for this technique is lingual luring, and alligator snappers are the only turtles that have bait built into their mouths. A hungry turtle will sit motionless on the river bottom, open wide, and wiggle their weird tongue lure temptingly. This is accomplished through the work of several muscles attached to the animal’s hyoid apparatus— a set of about a dozen articulating skeletal pieces.

The lure itself, or vermiform appendage— which literally just means worm-shaped appendage— is branched, creating the appearance of a complete wiggling worm. And it can fill with blood to become slightly larger, firmer and pinker, presumably to become more worm-y. The shape, color, and movement draws curious fish and frogs close, right into the danger zone.

Since the appendage also contains a lot of sensory nerves, as soon as the turtle feels something touch it, reflex takes over, and… snap. So if you’re swimming in a lake in the southeast and you spot something, like, weird and mysterious wiggling away below you there…. Don't!

No! The finger-removing abilities of snapping turtles? Not a myth!

Now, compared to giraffes’ other long traits, their 40 to 70 cm tongues actually seem kind of short. But they’re not just two thirds of a meter long— they’re also prehensile, meaning they’re capable of wrapping around and grasping stuff, and they’re a deep shade of bluish-purple. Even with their long necks, giraffes can still struggle to reach the tender leaves at the very tops of acacia trees— hence that sizeable tongue.

And its dexterity helps sort out the tasty bits from spiny twigs. In fact, they’re so used to manipulating food with their tongues that when zoos make their meals too easy to get at, the animals get kind of neurotic and start licking other stuff. This random licking behavior is actually reduced if their food is prepared in a way that gives their tongues, like, an appropriate workout.

A giraffe’s tongue also has a very tough, sandpapery surface and thick, antiseptic saliva, which help prevent and heal cuts and abrasions that it gets from rooting around for leaves among gnarly acacia thorns. That saliva is also thought to keep any thorns that do get swallowed from harming the digestive tract— pokey bits get coated so thickly in the stuff that they just pass through. As for the dark purple-blue color— no one is 100% sure, but most experts think that it helps prevent sunburn, since they spend so much time with their tongues sticking out.

You don't want to get a tongue sunburn! And these antiseptic, prehensile tongues have another handy use for giraffes: they help them keep their nostrils and ears squeaky clean! Blue whales are the largest animals on the planet, so it’s not surprising that their tongues are correspondingly huge.

Just the tongue of a blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant. But it’s not just big—it’s also super stretchy, which helps when you want to use it to move around tens of thousands of liters of water. To get a mouthful of tiny krill, blue whales open up wide and lunge through dense schools at high speeds.

The resulting force of all that water rushing into the whale’s mouth flips its tongue inside out and expands the pleated bottom of its mouth. Together they form a giant pouch, full of doomed critters. Then, the whale closes its mouth.

The tongue helps squeeze all that water out, filtering it through the baleen plates and leaving behind a mouthful of food—as much as half a million calories’ worth. In other animals, stretching out all that flesh and then contracting it again would wreak havoc on the nerves in the mouth and tongue. But the tongue nerves of blue whales and their relatives have a special adaptation to handle this—they’re super stretchy, like bungee cords.

The nerve fibers can extend to twice their regular length, and then snap back, none the worse for wear. Who knew so much went into scooping up mouthfuls of teeny tiny krill! It’s hard to imagine having a sticky, spring-loaded tongue that can shoot out of your mouth and snag a roll from the next table over, or a tongue that doubles as a fishing lure, no rod and reel required.

But for these animals, outlandish tongues are the norm. And maybe them looking at us, they're like, "What are they doing with all that ta—noise makin'? Weirdos!" Thanks to natural selection, maybe we've all learned some extreme lingual tricks!

Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow, which was great! It was a rollercoaster, you guys. And if you’re fascinated by bizarre mouthparts, you might wanna check out our episode on creatures with super weird teeth. [OUTRO ♪].