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Fast Tongue, Slow Suck? A Valentine’s Day Blog.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 14, 2011


Two bits of biological research should have you contemplating the splendid things tongues can do.

First, scientists have come up with the one factoid you have all been pining to know: The animal with the fastest tongue on Earth is a giant palm salamander from Central America, Bolitoglossa dofleini.

Bolitoglossa? Isn’t that Greek, or maybe Spanish, for bullet tongue?

The salamander actually fires its tongue more like an arrow, propelling it with the energy stored by stretching elastic fibers in its mouth. In fact, firing the tongue releases more than 18,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle, according to Stephen Deban of the University of South Florida in Tampa. That’s almost double the previous record of 9,600 watts per kilogram, held by the Colorado River toad. Either way, their insect prey die. You can see a termite take the fall at Deban’s web site,  While you’re there, look around the site for cool photos and diagrams. The shot of the cricket getting plucked off a trapeze is highly entertaining.

Meanwhile, Brendan Borrell at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying orchid bees. These tiny insects have evolved extraordinarily long tongues, to gain exclusive access to the nectar from deep-throated tropical flowers. By measuring the feeding rate of different bee species at artificial flowers in Costa Rica and Panama, Borrell found that the bees with long tongues are slow feeders. That’s because it really is hard work sucking nectar through a long straw. But they sacrifice speed, he says, because these flowers are extraordinarily nutritious, providing up to ten times the quantity of nectar provided by typical bee flowers.

It makes me wonder about the time Darwin was looking at 15-inch-long orchid flower from Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale, and predicted that there had to be an insect with a tongue that long to pollinate it. Forty years after Darwin’s death, scientists discovered the hawkmoth they named Xanthopan morganii praedicta, to honor Darwin’s prediction. It unfurls its incredibly long tongue in flight and inserts it deep into the flower to feed. But in the video I’ve seen, the hawkmoth gets what it wants pretty quickly and moves on. So what’s the story, Brian? Are they watering the nectar in Madagascar?

But. o.k. I will leave you to daydream about what it might be like if your mate had a tongue as fast as a giant palm salamander’s, and as patient and probing as an orchid bee’s.  Happy Valentine’s Day.


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