If you're an insect, the last thing you want to see flying at you is the sticky pink tip of a chameleon's tongue. Now, new research has found that not only can this tongue defy the laws of muscle power, it's even more powerful than previously thought.
More than 10 years ago, a pair of Dutch biologists who had been wowed by the incredible speed and accuracy of a chameleon's tongue set out to determine just how fast it really is. Using high-speed video and X-ray film, they quickly determined that your average chameleon can "shoot" its tongue at more than 26 body-lengths per second - that's just about 13.4 mph. Not bad for a lizard that normally grows no more than 17 inches.
They also determined that this top speed is achieved with an acceleration of a whopping 20 feet per second. As described in a study published in the journal Science, that's a rate that actually defies the general principles of power production in muscle, as it would take more power than the tiny creatures can carry.
"If you do the calculation, you know that the muscle alone cannot be responsible for this rapid acceleration," researcher Jurriaan de Groot told National Geographic at the time.
Eventually, de Groot and leader Johan L. van Leeuwen found that the secret was in the tongue's structure, that's literally "spring loaded" like a catapult thanks to unique elastic collagen structures. And like any good catapult, these springs take time to crank up, which explains why chameleons can't rapid fire their remarkable tongues.
Now in an analysis of 55 chameleons representing 20 species, a researcher has determined that smaller chameleons pack even more power into their tiny tongues.
After analyzing data on 275 feedings, Christopher Anderson of Brown University determined that the small South African chameleon species Bradypodion thamnobates shoots out its tongue with up to 41,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle involved. That's the equivalent of about 54 horse power - the same amount of power the engines on most dirt bikes produce - and all just to send a tiny tongue flying towards tiny prey.
He presented this finding and more at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Anderson went on to argue that smaller chameleons may have the most powerful tongues to ensure they have enough to eat, as they also boast faster metabolisms than larger lizards. The reigning tongue slap champ, B. thamnobates, is less than two inches long.
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