You've probably seen it before - a snake extends its forked tongue, waves it around rapidly, then retracts it. Creepy, right? What do they do that for anyway? Theories explaining the forked tongues of snakes are many and ancient. Aristotle reasoned that it provided snakes with "a twofold pleasure from savours, their gustatory sensation being as it were doubled". 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Hodierna thought snake tongues were for cleaning dirt out of their noses. Several writers in the 1600s claimed to have watched snakes catch flies or other animals between the forks of their tongues, using them like forceps. It is a common myth even today that snakes can sting you with their tongues. Watch this video to convince yourself that none of those hypotheses is likely:
|A Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri)|
touching its tongue tips to the ground
Instead, x-ray movies have revealed that the tongue does not move inside the closed mouth, but that each side of the tongue deposits the chemicals it has collected onto pads on the floor of the mouth (called the anterior processes of the sublingual plicae, in anatomical jargon) as the mouth is closing. It is most likely these plicae that deliver the sampled molecules to the entrance of the Jacobson's Organ (the vomeronasal fenestrae) when the floor of the mouth is elevated to come into contact with the roof following a tongue flick. Further evidence for this heretical notion is that geckos, skinks, and other lizards lack deeply-forked tongues but deliver chemicals to their vomeronasal organs just fine, and in fact so do turtles and many mammals and amphibians (although in none of these groups is the Jacobson's Organ as well-developed as in squamates).
|Cross-sectional structure of one half of the Jacobson's Organ,|
including the sensory epithelium, lumen, and mushroom body
From Døving & Trotier 1998
|Male (left) and female (right)|
Figure from Smith et al. 2008
|Different types of tongue flicks|
From Daghfous et al. 2012
When following a scent-trail, snakes simply touch their tongue tips down to the ground to pick up the chemical information lying there (top panel, left). But snakes can also use a different type of tongue-flick (bottom two panels) to sample airborne chemicals. Snakes often wave their tongues in the air without putting them in contact with anything. The tongue creates self-reinforcing air vortices. Vortices formed in the water by boats drift away from the boat as they form. Bill Ryerson, another student in the Schwenk lab, found that the vortices created in the air by snake tongues have a special property - they do not drift away but rather stay in the vicinity of the tongue, where they can be sampled repeatedly as the tongue skirts the part of each vortex where the air velocity is the highest. Oscillating tongue-flicks are unique to snakes. They usually last 2-3 times longer and can sample 100 times as much air as the simple downward extension of the tongue. The tongue then transfers these molecules to the Jacobson's Organ via the same route described above. Evidence suggests that male Copperheads can also find females using oscillating tongue-flicks to detect airborne pheromones, although the details of how they determine direction using such dispersed and transient odors are poorly understood. We have much to learn about this incredibly advanced sensory system and the role it has played in the evolutionary success of snakes.
Thanks to Bill Ryerson for giving such an engaging talk at SICB 2014 and for talking with me after, so that I was inspired to research and write this piece, and to JustNature and Zack Podratz for allowing me to use their photographs and videos.
Berkhoudt, H., P. Wilson, and B. Young. 2001. Taste buds in the palatal mucosa of snakes. African Zoology 36:185-188 <link>
Daghfous, G., M. Smargiassi, P.-A. Libourel, R. Wattiez, and V. Bels. 2012. The function of oscillatory tongue-flicks in snakes: insights from kinematics of tongue-flicking in the Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata). Chemical Senses 37:883-896 <link>
Døving, K. B. and D. Trotier. 1998. Structure and function of the vomeronasal organ. Journal of Experimental Biology 201:2913-2925 <link>
Ford, N. B. 1986. The role of pheromone trails in the sociobiology of snakes. Pages 261-278 in D. Duvall, D. Muller-Schwarze, and R. M. Silverstein, editors. Chemical Signals in Vertebrates, Vol 4. Plenum, New York <link>
Gove, D. 1979. A comparative study of snake and lizard tongue‐flicking, with an evolutionary hypothesis. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 51:58-76 <link>
Halpern, M. and S. Borghjid. 1997. Sublingual plicae (anterior processes) are not necessary for garter snake vomeronasal function. Journal of Comparative Psychology 111:302-306 <link>
Parker, M. R., B. A. Young, and K. V. Kardong. 2008. The forked tongue and edge detection in snakes (Crotalus oreganus): an experimental test. Journal of Comparative Psychology 122:35-40 <link>
Schwenk, K. 1994. Why snakes have forked tongues. Science 263:1573-1577 <link>
Smith, C. F. 2007. Sexual dimorphism, and the spatial and reproductive ecology of the copperhead snake, Agkistrodon contortrix. PhD Dissertation. University of Connecticut <link>
Smith, C., K. Schwenk, R. Earley, and G. Schuett. 2008. Sexual size dimorphism of the tongue in a North American pitviper. Journal of Zoology 274:367-374 <link>
Ryerson, W. G. and K. Schwenk. 2012. A simple, inexpensive system for digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) in biomechanics. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological Genetics and Physiology 317:127-140 <link>
Young, B. A. 1990. Is there a direct link between the ophidian tongue and Jacobson's organ? Amphibia-Reptilia 11:263-276 <link>
Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.