The smaller the chameleon, the more powerful the tongue, say researchers.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Brown University say that a small chameleon that would fit on your thumb can project its tongue from 0 to 97 kilometers per hour in a mere one hundredth of a second.
"Smaller species have higher performance than larger species," said Christopher Anderson, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
Not only do small chameleons outgun their larger relatives, Anderson’s research found that “the motion has the highest acceleration and power output produced per kilogram of muscle mass by any reptile, bird, or mammal and is the second most powerful among any kind of vertebrate.”
Only the salamander can best it.
The tiny Rhampholeon spinosus chameleon can stick out its tongue with a peak acceleration 264 times greater than the acceleration due to gravity.
Chameleons don’t achieve such stunning tongue power from muscle power alone. By “preloading” the tongue’s energy into elastic tissues in the tongue, the muscle power is greatly augmented, researchers say.
For his research, Anderson used 20 species of differently sized chameleons and video taped them shooting their tongues at a cricket. This allowed him to measure the tongue’s speed and acceleration.
What he found was that the smaller the chameleon, the higher the “peak acceleration, relative power, and distance of tongue extension relative to body size.”
While all chameleons have the same “catapult-like” tongue launching mechanism, the smaller ones have a bigger apparatus relative to their body size.
Anderson said there is an evolutionary explanation for this.
Smaller creatures need to take in more energy per body weight to survive. Therefore, the small chameleons need to be very good at catching prey. Super powerful tongues appear to give them the edge they need.