It’s called Rhampholeon spinosus. And it can lash its tongue out at speeds that put any supercar to shame. Scientists have long known that chameleons can stick their tongues out extremely quickly to snatch prey. But the specifics of this tongue lashing have not been fully studied. Specifically, smaller species.

Brown University biologist Christopher Anderson set out to change that. In a new study, Anderson shows just how fast chameleons can grab a cricket. He looked at 20 different species of chameleon. They ranged from several inches to several feet in length. Each one got their turn in front of a camera that shoots 3,000 frames per second. Anderson dangled a cricket in front of each one and waited. As each chameleon lashed their tongues out for the tasty snack, Anderson measured the distance, speed, acceleration and elapsed time.

Trioceros hoehnelii grabbing a snack.

Once he gathered all his measurements, Andersen noticed a trend. The smaller the chameleon, the higher the acceleration. And the smallest of all was the Rhampholeon spinosus.

Its tongue produces an acceleration 264 times greater than the force of gravity. Or, 0 to 60 in a hundredth of a second for us NASCAR fans. Crickets don’t stand a chance. They go from minding their own business to a snack in just 20 milliseconds.

It wasn’t just acceleration that was higher, either. This particular chameleon can also stick out its tongue further relative to body size than any other at 2.5 times its body length.

chameleon and cricket

How do chameleons do it?

They don’t just fling their tongues with spontaneous muscle power. Elastic tissues ‘preload’ most of the tongue’s energy. Imagine a natural slingshot. The recoil from the tissues shoots the chameleon’s tongue out to catch insects and flies. You can see this recoil in the video above just as the tongue is coming out of the chameleon’s mouth.

Why do little chameleons pack a bigger punch?

It’s that little thing called evolution. Tiny chameleons, like other small animals, consume more energy per body weight to survive. Because of this, they need to be really good at catching dinner.

Let’s take a look at another species of chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti. It’s nearly two feet long. But its tongue motion is much weaker at less than 18% of Rhampholeon spinosus.

Rhampholeon spinosus’ tongue pumps out a total output of 14,040 watts per kilogram. The crazy thing? Salamander tongues are even stronger. The Bolitoglossa dofleini (a giant palm salamander from Central America) shoots its tongue with 18,000 watts per kilogram. And, this number is probably much higher in smaller species of salamander.

“What this study shows is that by using smaller species, we may be able to elucidate these higher performance values,” Anderson said.

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