Snakes exhibit a variety of behaviors, tongue flicking being among the most recognizable ones. Lizards also engage in tongue flicking, but why do they do it, and what does that say about the animal?
Today, we’ll discuss snake tongues and how these reptiles can use them to communicate and operate effectively within their ecosystem. But let’s start with the beginning!
Anatomy of a Snake’s Tongue
The snake’s tongue consists of several ‘moving parts.’ These include:
- Muscles – The tongue itself comprises several muscles that allow it the range of motion specific to that snake in particular. These muscles form the base of the tongue and the tongue itself and work in tandem to force the tongue in and out of the mouth.
- Papillae – The papillae are located on the tongue’s surface and are there to detect minute chemical changes in the environment. In other words, these structures can capture airborne particles, which the snake can then identify based on their composition. If this sounds convoluted, think ‘snakes can smell with their tongues,’ and you’ll get a better picture of what I’m saying.
- The Jacobson’s Organ – To be fair, the Jacobson’s organ isn’t part of the tongue, but its presence complements the tongue’s existence in the first place. This organ only has one role: to capture the scent particles captured by the tongue and connect them to the nervous system to decipher their nature. The Jacobson’s organ is essentially a critical component of the snake’s olfactory system, without which snakes couldn’t make sense of all the different smells around them.
The last part may be a bit confusing because Jacobson’s organ may seem like a redundant addition. Other animals don’t have that, including humans, and can differentiate and decipher smells just fine.
This is a valid point, except those animals, including humans, don’t do that with their tongues; snakes do. So, the presence of Jacobson’s organ is necessary for an animal that can smell with its tongue.
How Snakes Use Their Tongues
This section relates to the last paragraph. Snakes use their tongues primarily for detecting various scents in their ecosystem. The system is quite simple. The snake flicks its tongue out and wiggles it for a split second in the air.
This allows it to capture any airborne scent particles nearby and drag them to the mouth palate where Jacobson’s organ is located.
The Jacobson’s organ then connects to the snake’s nervous system to decipher the scent and provide the animal with the information it was looking for.
It’s an easy and straightforward system that relies on the snake flicking its tongue constantly, using its olfactory sense to map its surroundings.
The Importance of Tongues to Snakes
Tongues are considered vital organs for snakes due to the role that they play in the snake’s survival.
Here are some of the fundamental roles of reptilian tongues from a physiological perspective:
Hunting and Feeding
Snakes are active predators that feed on live prey. Or, at least, wild snakes do, as captive-bred ones can also consume dead and thawed prey as well.
The tongue is a functional part of the hunting aspect because it provides the snake with critical information about the animal approaching.
The snake can use its tongue to detect whether the animal in question is prey or predator and whether it’s worth pursuing. This ability is useful for both venomous and constrictor snakes that rely on ambush to catch their prey.
Venomous snakes also use their tongues when giving chase because they have no way of incapacitating their prey on the spot.
So, they will instead bite the animal and let go. The animal flees the scene, but the snake uses its tongue to keep track of its scent during the pursuit.
The venom will soon take effect and bring the prey down, at which point the snake can catch up and resume its meal.
Mating and Reproduction
Snakes are anti-social animals, so they prefer to live solitary lives. However, they will meet on occasion, whether by accident or intentionally, during the mating season.
The latter part is important because that’s when snakes rely on their smell to meet up. Males use their tongues to detect the pheromones emitted by the female.
Doing so provides the male snake with several pieces of information:
- Determine that the female in question is ready to mate
- Figure out the direction and distance to the female
- Determine whether the female belongs to the same species
- Once the male meets the female, it may lick the female’s skin to confirm its mating disposition
Females also use their tongues to signal their interest in a particular male during the courtship. Further down the line, female snakes can use their tongues to transport their eggs to safety.
So, this organ bears significantly more important than at first sight.
Snakes use their tongues to detect predators in time. This allows them to act before encountering the predator, which can lead to a dangerous confrontation.
Snakes have several defensive mechanisms, such as camouflage, the ability to stay still for prolonged periods of time, releasing a foul odor, hissing, producing rattling sounds, biting, and even spitting venom.
These can work to varying degrees of success, depending on the snake and the attacker’s size, ferocity, and determination. But there’s no denying that there’s no such thing as a perfect defensive mechanism.
Other than sheer size, maybe, given that some snakes are simply too large, which is why they have no natural predators. Anacondas and large Burmese pythons are great examples in this sense.
But the best approach still remains evasion. Snakes always prefer to avoid confrontations whenever possible, and their tongues are critical in this sense.
Snakes can use their tongues to determine subtle changes in environmental parameters. These reptiles can actually assess minor changes in temperature, humidity, and air pressure, which inform them of upcoming climactic or seasonal shifts.
In other words, snakes can tell when it’s about to rain, for instance, allowing them to act accordingly in time.
Sensitivity to Different Scents
Snakes are sensitive to specific scents, which allows them to distinguish the source incredibly well. For instance, snakes are very good at detecting other invading snake species.
This allows them the luxury of deciding how they should approach the situation in time. If the invading snake is small enough, the larger one will eat it.
If not, fighting may ensue to establish territorial boundaries. Or the snake may simply retreat and avoid the invading reptile altogether if the visitor is larger and ranks higher on the food chain.
Snakes can also determine the species and size of the animal approaching their location without even seeing it.
This allows them to tell whether the creature they’re smelling is prey or predator so that they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
What Happens When a Snake’s Tongue is Removed?
Removing a snake’s tongue translates to a death sentence for several reasons:
- Increased difficulty hunting – Fortunately, snakes rely on several senses when hunting, including vision, vibration detection, and infrared detection. The ability to sense the prey’s scent is an important part of finding and tracking the prey, but not absolutely essential. So, the snake will have considerable difficulties hunting and eating properly, which will impact the snake’s health and lifespan going forward.
- Increased difficulty avoiding predators – Snakes use the same wide range of senses to detect prey and predators alike, which allows them to hide, flee the area, or simply keep a low profile until the danger has passed. But their ability to smell the animals lurking around them is critical in this sense. Without it, they can no longer detect predators in time, which will severely impact their survivability
- Difficulties with feeding and hydrating – Snakes cannot drink water without their tongues, and they need to do so to survive. Without their tongues, they will eventually dehydrate, despite their ability to absorb moisture through their skin. They also cannot feed properly without their tongues, as most snakes use their tongues to force the prey down the throat.
- Increased aggression – A snake without a tongue tends to become more aggressive because it lacks one of its main tools for assessing potential threats. This causes the snake to overreact to everything out of an excess of precaution. Snakes are illiterate reptiles, so they can’t understand the saying ‘better safe than sorry.’ But they will surely act as they do upon removing their tongues.
- High risk of infection – Removing the snake’s tongue opens a wound that’s prone to infection. And a wound of that caliber can produce a life-threatening infection fairly fast.
In essence, removing the snake’s tongue is merely a cruel act that comes with virtually no benefits. It falls in the same category as cutting the ears of pit bull pups, which only makes sense if they’re fighting dogs.
In that case, the surgical removal of the years would accomplish what will happen anyway during a standard pit bull fight. But with not as much trauma.
When it comes to removing the snakes’ tongues, the situation is entirely different because there are no benefits to discuss.
Snakes use their tongues to scan their environment and gather information about the complex world around them.
Their tongue-flicking behavior isn’t just an automatic gesture, like a tic, but actually a voluntary one with a specific purpose.