The Secrets of the Chameleon's Tongue

Small chameleons are able to project their tongues over a greater distance than larger specimens. Would you like to know more curiosities about their amazing tongues?
The Secrets of the Chameleon's Tongue
Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez

Written and verified by the biologist Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Chameleons are one of the most famous reptiles in the animal world, and are known for their ability to change their color to hide from predators. However, this isn’t the only amazing feature they exhibit, as the chameleon also has an incredible tongue that is double the length of its body. Read on and learn the secrets behind the chameleon’s tongue.

These beautiful reptiles use their large tongue to catch their prey, as it carries sticky substances that help them to catch them. As if that weren’t enough, they carry out this movement in less than a second, which makes them very fast and accurate when hunting.

What are chameleons?

Chameleons are a diverse group of reptiles that belong to the Chamaeleonidae family. According to the database Reptile Database database, there are currently more than 200 species distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world. These animals are capable of living in different types of habitats, which has created a great variety of colors and shapes among specimens.

Chameleons are medium-sized reptiles, ranging from a few centimeters to just over half a meter (1.6 feet). Likewise, their ability to change color depends on each species, but their function is always similar: to mimic the environment, to thermoregulate, and to send visual signals to other specimens.

Chameleons aren’t usually very active, as they prefer to hide and remain motionless for long periods of time. They take advantage of their inactivity to hunt, as they stay in one place in order to catch any unwary arthropod that approaches. However, this wouldn’t be possible without their long tongue, because, thanks to it, they have a wide capture range that they use to their advantage.

A chameleon catching a fly.

The secrets of the chameleon’s tongue

The chameleon’s tongue works with a mechanism similar to a spring, and it shoots out as if it were a bullet. According to researchers at Oxford University, it’s estimated that a specimen can take between 10 and 55 microseconds to project its tongue.

To achieve this great speed, the structure’s mechanism relies entirely on muscles. The process makes use of the elastic forces provided by the collagen fibers, which form a kind of tongue “catapult” capable of shooting at high speed.

The length of the tongue is also very important in this process, because when it retracts it begins to store up a tensile force in the muscle that forms it. In other words, the same thing happens as when a spyglass is contracted and folds are formed to reduce the size to a minimum. As it’s an elastic muscle, this effect causes it to tense and store energy.

Simply put, the tongue contracts as if it were a kind of spring which, when released, releases the stored up energy and it shoots out like a bullet. Thanks to this, the speed at which the tongue structure is ejected and the prey is intercepted is incredible.

Main structures of the tongue mechanism

Although this sounds simple, the mechanism is very complicated on a biological level, as a “spring” has to be constructed from flesh and bone. However, somehow nature found the solution and from these 3 basic structures it managed to create something fascinating:

  1. Entoglossal process: A bone that serves as the base for the tongue of the chameleon and helps to direct the shot. Formally, it’s known as a projection of the hyoid bone unique to these reptiles.
  2. Accelerator muscle: This is in charge of retracting the whole tongue and squeezing it to generate the tension; the same thing happens when compacting a spring. The moment it stops exerting this pressure, the mechanism releases the energy and fires.
  3. Retractor muscle: Once the mechanism is activated, this muscle is responsible for picking up the tongue and returning it to the mouth. Contrary to the accelerator, it works like any other muscle and doesn’t generate energy by tension.

This fabulous mechanism manages to reach speeds of 33 meters per second (108 feet), so even high-speed cameras have to be used to film it. Thanks to this, in fractions of a second the chameleons catch their prey without it even noticing. In addition, the tip of their tongue contains sticky substances that ensure the catch and each shot has a high chance of hitting the target.

Does it matter if they’re in the cold?

As you can see, the tongue of the chameleon makes good use of its muscular capacity. For this reason, you might think that this mechanism would have problems in the cold, as the muscle fibers aren’t efficient at low temperatures. However, this isn’t the case, as this reptile’s shooting isn’t based on movement, but on tension due to elasticity.

The mechanism of the chameleon’s tongue is unique, as it makes use of the elasticity of the musculature. This reptile has a fast, silent weapon for hunting, which makes it a great predator. Nature gives impressive characteristics to some animals and chameleons seem to be especially blessed as they have many extraordinary abilities.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Anderson, C. V., & Deban, S. M. (2012). Thermal effects on motor control and in vitro muscle dynamics of the ballistic tongue apparatus in chameleons. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(24), 4345-4357.
  • Moulton, D. E., Lessinnes, T., O’Keeffe, S., Dorfmann, L., & Goriely, A. (2016). The elastic secrets of the chameleon tongue. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 472(2188), 20160030.
  • de Groot, J. H., & van Leeuwen, J. L. (2004). Evidence for an elastic projection mechanism in the chameleon tongue. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 271(1540), 761-770.
  • Herrel, A., Meyers, J. J., Aerts, P., & Nishikawa, K. C. (2001). Functional implications of supercontracting muscle in the chameleon tongue retractors. Journal of Experimental Biology, 204(21), 3621-3627.
  • Müller, U. K., & Kranenbarg, S. (2004). Power at the tip of the tongue. Science, 304(5668), 217-219.
  • Anderson, C. V. (2016). Off like a shot: scaling of ballistic tongue projection reveals extremely high performance in small chameleons. Scientific reports, 6(1), 1-9.
  • Anderson, C. V., Sheridan, T., & Deban, S. M. (2012). Scaling of the ballistic tongue apparatus in chameleons. Journal of morphology, 273(11), 1214-1226.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.