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The Smaller the Chameleon, The Mightier Its Tongue

by Daniel Oberhaus
Jan 4 2016, 10:00am

Image: Christopher Anderson

With their freaky 360 degree eyes, technicolor dream skin, high knee swagger, and crazy long tongue, it's safe to say that chameleons are about as chill as lizards come. But you didn't come here to be reminded of how damn cool chameleons are, did you? You came to see a chameleon's tongue go from 0-60 mph in less than 1/100 of a second because as a team of researchers from Brown University recently found out, apparently that's a thing.

As the team detailed in a new article for Scientific Reports, chameleon's tongues are even crazier than previously believed, possessing the highest acceleration and power output produced per kilogram of muscle mass by any reptile, bird, or mammal in existence. This detail has been overlooked in chameleon literature gone by, largely because the smallest species of chameleon hadn't been included in those previous studies.

"Smaller species have higher performance than larger species," Christopher Anderson, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral research associate in Brown's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said in a statement. "What this study shows is that by using smaller species, we may be able to elucidate these higher performance values."

According to the team's study, which surveyed 20 chameleon species, it was the smallest chameleons whose tongues packed the biggest punch. This was discovered after Anderson and his team took each species of chameleon and placed it in front of a high speed camera along with a cricket. When the chameleon went for the cricket, Anderson and his colleagues were able to measure the speed and acceleration of the chameleon's tongue by recording the interaction at 3000 frames per second.

Although the chameleon with the highest tongue performance (known as Rhampholeon spinosus) could fit on the tip of your finger, its tongue is capable of a peak acceleration that is 264 times the acceleration due to gravity, resulting in a power output of 14,040 watts per kilogram. Anderson found that the smallest chameleons outperformed their larger counterparts in terms of peak acceleration, relative power and extension length relative to body size across the board. Take the Furcifer oustaleti for example, a species of chameleon that is about two feet long, but only achieved a peak acceleration of less than 18 percent of the tiny Rhampholeon spinosus.

Rhampholeon spinosus. Image: Christopher Anderson

This feat of biological engineering works by preloading energy into the elastic tissues of the chameleon's tongue. When this energy is released, the recoil from these tissues allows the tongue to perform much better than it would be able to do from spontaneous muscle action alone. As for why smaller chameleons developed such high octane tongues compared to their larger relatives, Anderson thinks that it is because the smaller chameleons must consume more energy relative to their body weight to survive. Thus, having a tongue that is especially good at catching dinner gives them a competitive advantage that allows them to more effectively capture and reel in their prey.

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Rhampholeon spinosus